With concern and anticipation about a potential client looming in the air, the Marlow Innovation Firm focuses its energy on a trend spotting and synthesis project.

The day broke, clear and sunny, with a fine soft west wind off the bay.  People were out, going to work, eating in bagel shops, sipping that first delicious mouthful of coffee.  They were driving to work in convertibles with the wind in their hair, reveling in the fine weather.  All was sunshine and light on the outside.

Or at least that’s the way it appeared from my bedroom window, peering slightly off to the left to get a glimpse of the street down the narrow alleyway between my building and the one just across the way.  Mornings were probably another invention we should chalk up to Torquemada, even mornings as bright and clear and resonant as this one.  No wonder Starbucks and Caribou and a host of other cartoonish coffee klatches had succeeded.  Most people didn’t want to get out of bed even on the best of mornings, and they needed that caffeinated kickstart to get them moving.

It was a fine morning outside, inside my thoughts turned to Accipiter.  Like a montage in an old movie, pages from a calendar were being ripped off and thrown away.  Today was the 30th working day since I’d presented to Accipiter’s management team at the Excelsior.  In that time period I’d had one voice to voice call with Johansen, left two voicemails for Phillips (unreturned), left three voicemails for Briggs (unreturned) and had four conversations with myself about what had gone wrong.  Silence from a firm like Accipiter is as inevitable as rust, and since no executive in his right mind will tell you what is happening until the ground under his feet stops moving, the silence wasn’t entirely unexpected.  I understood that no decision would be taken quickly, but Accipiter was moving with the speed of a prehistoric sloth surrounded by hungry Cro-Magnons.  The decision process and timeframes were a bad omen in another way.  If they did choose to work with Marlow, would all decisions take so long to finalize?

I tossed back my breakfast, a mixture of day old coffee with a splash of something Irish and dressed, pondering my next move.  First, I asked myself, did Accipiter intend to do anything to innovate?  Next, if so, did it intend to seek out an outside partner to assist with that work?  Third, if so, how likely was it that Marlow Innovation would be that firm.  Last, if all of those suppositions fell in my favor, what was the approximate timeframe until the next global warming period?  In all honesty I answered my questions as 1) maybe but who really knew 2) probably, if for no other reason than to overcome internal inertia and lethargy 3) Very likely since I’d met and spoken with most of them and 4) that date got reset each quarter.

Fortunately Matt and I had enough on our plate to keep us occupied, expanding the office, bringing Meredith up to speed, working with other existing clients and trolling for new opportunities.  Hiring Meredith brought immediate and unexpected benefits – a small trend spotting and synthesis project for a traditional media company.  Meredith had contacts and introduced Marlow Innovation as a firm to assist with trend spotting, synthesis and scenario planning, which we won fair and square, which is to say without competition.  We’d be starting that project this week.

Trend spotting and synthesis is one of my favorite types of projects, because it is somewhat removed from the pressure of identifying a new “product”.  Trend spotting and scenario planning are divergent and discovery based, rather than convergent and outcome based.   There’s some of the Blue Ocean in a trend spotting and synthesis exercise, especially as it extends into a scenario planning workshop.  Our goal is to look 5 to 7 years into the future, extending key trends and developing a description of the future conditions and possible outcomes.  This work is interesting because it involves conjecture, and trading off alternatives and forecasting actions and reactions across time.  Many firms do this work exceedingly well – the Shell Oil company has used scenario planning very successfully and much of what we do is built on the work they and the Defense Department created in the 60s and 70s.  I frequently pull the  “bible” of scenario planning off my shelf, a book entitled The Art of the Long View by Peter Schwartz.  Being a good innovation consultant often means standing on the shoulders of giants.  I hope Matt and I leave enough behind to be considered contributors to the ideas, concepts and tools people like Schwartz and Osborn and Christensen created.  The other reason I enjoy trend spotting and synthesis is that we often identify unexpected opportunities and challenges for our clients.

For example, in one trend spotting exercise years ago we extrapolated the growth of the “doc in a box” or minute clinic, and one of our projections was that these locations would become the predominant place to acquire healthcare for people with insurance, as well as the underinsured, in the matter of just a few years.  At the time, the health insurer who was our client laughed off that assumption.  They simply weren’t ready to expand their thinking and recognize the changes afoot in the market.  Two years later that same insurer was investing in minute clinics and considering completely new compensation schemes for doctors in those clinics and the patients who frequented them.  Our scenario planning indicated that convenience was taking precedence over a relationship with one doctor or one practice.  This meant that many people, insured and uninsured, would acquire more health care at their local “doc in a box” and would interact with less frequency with their traditional medical practices.    Done well, trend spotting, synthesis and scenario planning can provide a glimpse into a very possible future.  All that remains is for the client to take action before some other firm does.

Thinking about the trend spotting activity brightened my morning.  Or perhaps the Irish part of my coffee breakfast was kicking in.  I finished dressing and went down to take part in the great commute in the warm summer breeze, my mind already exploring the trends in the media space and extrapolating into possible scenarios.  Accipiter and its glacial pace would wait another day.

About the author:

Jeffrey PhillipsJeffrey Phillips is VP Marketing and a lead consultant for OVO Innovation. Jeffrey has led innovation projects for Fortune 5000 firms, academic institutions and not-for=profits based on OVO Innovation’s Innovate on Purpose™ methodology. The Innovate on Purpose methodology encourages organizations to consider innovation as a sustainable, repeatable business process, rather than a discrete project.

Jeffrey is the author of “Make Us More Innovative,” a book that encompasses much of the OVO Innovation methodology, and blogs about innovation at Innovate On Purpose. He is a sought after speaker and has presented to corporations, innovation oriented conferences, and at a number of universities. In 2010 he chaired the Innovate North Carolina conference and was a keynote speaker at Queen’s University, University of the Pacific, UNC and several other colleges and conferences. Jeffrey has an MBA from the University of Texas at Austin and an undergraduate degree in engineering from the University of Virginia.