Will you be relevant to future consumers if you stay inside your comfort zone?

By

Andrew Cosgrove

EY Global Consumer Knowledge Leader & Lead Analyst

Consumer futurist. Strategist with global FMCG experience. Storyteller. Photographer. Father.

4 minute read 16 May 2018

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Leaders need to challenge traditional ways of working and prepare for the long-term.

How much time do you spend thinking about the future of your business? For most leaders of consumer goods and retail companies, the answer would be “not enough.” The challenge of meeting quarterly targets today means most of the executives I talk to are usually laser-focused on the current financial year.

That isn’t surprising, and it isn’t a criticism.

New technologies, innovative business models and unexpected sources of competition are disrupting the consumer goods and retail industry at a pace that can feel bewildering. In that context, taking time to imagine what the consumer might be like in 5 or 10 years — and what that means for your business now — can seem self-indulgent.

But it isn’t.

Having a long-term vision can help you to compete

In my experience, the harder it becomes to imagine the future, the more advantage there is for the few who are able to develop a long-term vision. It’s not necessarily about predicting what will happen; rather, the value is in stepping out of the flow to see the direction of travel.

This is something we’ve been helping our consumer-facing clients with over the last few months. At weeklong hack events in Berlin, Los Angeles, London and Mumbai, we’ve been bringing together a diverse group of industry leaders, futurists, creatives and EY subject professionals to imagine what the world of the future consumer might be like.

The process we’ve been using — which is like no workshop or brainstorming session that I’ve ever experienced before — involves crunching together more than 150 different change drivers and 8 core hypotheses to create what we call “futureworlds.” Those drivers range from advances in personal technology to changes in social norms.

One aim is to challenge some of the ideas and preconceptions that have shaped the consumer and retail industries for decades, so we can imagine and explore entirely new paradigms — and, importantly, understand where value will be created, and how a business needs to change.

Having your trusted notions challenged in this way can — at times — be an uncomfortable experience. The hack events took me a long way outside of my intellectual comfort zone.

But it’s deeply necessary. To quote racing driver Mario Andretti, “If everything seems under control, you’re not going fast enough.” It’s important that we find the time — and make the effort — to think ”outside the box” and disrupt our default views of the world, so we can create a more relevant perspective.

Challenging your existing thinking

Organizational life can make this difficult. So, if you want your team to change its thinking, here are some lessons I learned from our hack events:

  • Have a clear structure. Creative chaos is good; chaos on its own isn’t. Let your participants know they are going on a carefully planned journey, even if you don’t know the final destination.
  • Get the widest mix of people in the room as possible. Surround yourself with people who have different visions, ages, backgrounds and so on. One of the futurists we worked with in Berlin had eaten nothing but nutritionally modified soil for a year.
  • Come prepared. At each hack, we worked with more than 150 drivers of change and 8 clear hypotheses about the future — all plausible, researched and evidenced. That meant people had something to sink their teeth into.
  • Be speedy. This kind of idea generation is about agile sprints; if you tried to do it slowly, it would take forever. So get out of your comfort zone, but stay focused on delivering.
  • Fail fast and learn. Think of your ideas as prototypes. Get used to uncertainty, incomplete data and untested assumptions. Don’t wait until everything is perfect. Iterate and edit your ideas — improve what works and kill what doesn’t, so you end up with something unexpected and useful. This may be the hardest part.
  • Go wild, but not crazy. The aim is to imagine plausible futures and understand the clear, actionable implications for your business today — not to come up with plot ideas for future episodes of Black Mirror. Control the things you need to control (people, place, location, timings, inputs), and let the things you don't need to control happen.

The hack weeks took our participants — and me — on quite a journey. I experienced complacency, healthy skepticism, creative challenge, excitement and many “aha” moments. But the results were fantastic. The leader of a global consumer product goods company said to me, “I never expected to walk away with such a transformational view of the consumer.”

Summary

To prepare for the future consumer, you need a diverse team who are empowered to innovate and experiment.

About this article

By

Andrew Cosgrove

EY Global Consumer Knowledge Leader & Lead Analyst

Consumer futurist. Strategist with global FMCG experience. Storyteller. Photographer. Father.