How I Do Trend Spotting

Last week I suggested that its important to start any futures project by asking “Why?”. The reason why it’s important to start with “Why?” is to ensure that you identify the purpose of the project you’re undertaking. This purpose needs to remain front and centre of the project at all times.

So having established the purpose of your project, you now need to start looking for the possible, probable and preferable futures for your organisation.

But in order to identify the possible, probable and preferable futures for your organisation, you need to identify the possible trends that may impact your industry and organisation. The problem is trying to identify those possible events out of left field that could hit you before they hit you.

Like most things in life, trend spotting is difficult, but with enough time and practice, it can become a bit easier. Will you spot every trend? Maybe not. Will you get some trends wrong? Definitely. But these shouldn’t be reasons to put you off trying.

Over a number of years I have found the following to be useful ways to engage in trend spotting:

1. Read, Read and Read Again

I am quite fortunate in that the building that I live in is protected by British heritage laws. This means that I am not allowed to have a satellite dish or TV aerial on the outside of my building. Using modern technology, I could stream live TV, but I don’t do that either. Guests who stay with me find this a very odd arrangement.

I avoid television at home as I’ve found that if you really want to absorb material and focus your mind, read. If you’re looking for a more meaningful and deeper analysis of current events, read. Television is a great visual medium, but due to time constraints news stories (for example) need to be covered in a few minutes. You really can’t get the bottom of why things are the way they are in a few minutes.

It’s also by reading more detailed analyses of current affairs (for example) that you can get a sense of what has happened in the past. While history never repeats itself exactly, it can provide you with some idea of things to keep an eye on. History also provides context, which for me, is important.

2. Read Widely

I try to read as widely as possible, covering fields outside my usual area of expertise. While I may not always be familiar with terms and concepts that a specialist in the field would be familiar with, it doesn’t stop me from either having my interest piqued or from doing some more research.

I also try to read views that are contrary to my beliefs. I do this to constantly challenge my beliefs to see if they hold up. If my beliefs can’t hold up after being challenged, I usually take this as an indication that something has shifted (a new trend possibly?) and I need to start changing my mental models.

But there is a more fundamental reason why I read widely – I’m looking for possible trends that will come out of left field before they hit me.

3. Keep Some Form of Record

For the past 9 years I have been keeping a spreadsheet of interesting stories that I come across. I also keep electronic copies of these articles. In the spreadsheet I record the title of the article, the name of the author, the format of the article, the date I found the article, the web address where I found the article and 3 keywords to classify the article.

Do I revisit these articles? Definitely! I may not have revisited every single article in my database but I know I have a system that allows me to find articles easily based on any number of criteria, such as date, topic and author.

4. Look for Emergent and Recurring Patterns

I have a list of what I think are interesting topics as well as emerging and recurring patterns. Some of the topics I’m tracking may not turn out to be trends in the end. That’s ok, because I’m comfortable with uncertainty being a fundamental principle of future studies.

But the main purpose of this list is to see whether an article I’m reading either (i) fits the trend, (ii) bucks the trend or (iii) may be a new trend.

5. Speak to Diverse People

One of the things that excites me about PurpleBeach is the diversity of the people who take part. Again, its by speaking to diverse people and hearing their perspectives that your mental models are challenged and expanded.

If I could sum all of this up into a few words they would be: keep an open mind and be curious.

6. So, What Next?

Now, all of this may seem like hard work and be time consuming. To be quite honest, it is. But it’s all about developing systems that (i) work for you, but more importantly (ii) fit the purpose of your project.

But there is some method to my madness. Over the next couple of weeks I will be discussing some formal future studies methods on which my methods are based.

The various approaches I’ve discussed in this blog are approaches that I have found that work for me. I would love to hear from you about the ways you spot trends, so mail me on contactus@purplebeach.com.

Also remember to send me links to interesting articles you’ve read during the week with a sentence or two why you find the article interesting and let’s do some “crowdsourced” trend spotting.

Thought from the Lifeguard’s Hut

If I have ever made any valuable discoveries, it has been owing more to patient attention than to any other talent

– Isaac Newton

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