Innovation Trend Spotting: Shepherding a Team of Opportunists

When an entrepreneur creates a new product or company, the result usually is borne by spotting an emerging trend, conceptualizing an innovation, or seizing an opportunity unmet or consumer behavior emerging in the marketplace.

But what happens once the company opens its doors or the product hits the market? Whose responsibility is it to spot the next trend or opportunity? More important, who should be charged with shepherding the behavior of trend-spotting across the organization?

Everybody is responsible for trend spotting. This isn’t some cliquey club; limit your people’s involvement at your own peril. From the Marketing and New Product Development Departments, to sales representatives in the field, from the CEO to the receptionist or CSRs – trends happen and are spotted everywhere. Therefore, everyone needs sharp eyes and piqued ears for emerging trends.

But trend spotting doesn’t just happen. Part mandate, part innate behavior, people have to want to be on the look out for new opportunities. Just as many organizations seek to break down silos that traditionally have separated teams or departments, the same sense of unified, yet independent thinking must permeate any organization that hopes to spot and capture the Next Big Thing.

This cannot be an idle mandate – a sort of set-it-and-forget-it statement from on high. Trend spotting is learned by example, and encouraged or shepherded by senior managers who also focus on innovation. This can be the CEO of a smaller organization, or the Chief Innovation Officer at a larger one.

This kind of lead-by-example encouragement transforms employees across the enterprise into Idea Generators – trend spotters who become champions of their space and sources of new ideas that touch every part of the organization. One who submits an idea is more likely to take ownership of it – and help shepherd it in kind through the research and discovery process

(Whether a trend that is explored and later travels the path to New Product Development is another topic. To be sure, not all trends spotted and submitted to the Idea Hopper for further discovery will blossom – at least right away. Some will, and some must wait for market or company conditions to blossom in kind. And that’s fine.)

How can you improve and become more creative in organizational trend spotting?

– Create a Trend / Idea War Room. Like lighting company Sylvania “War Room” for trend spotting. Yours can be a permanent place where white and dry erase boards, competitive products, and ads clipped from magazines line the walls (see more below).

– Solicit outside involvement. Do you have field reps, distributors, retailers who are on the front lines of customer interaction? They can help target opportunities by specific geographies or market segments.

– Tap tradeshows. I’ve always encouraged aggressive trend spotting at tradeshows. As your people walk the floor, encourage them to envision and cross apply. At Kohler, we would attend design and household appliance shows, and come up with better and trend fitting kitchen product designs for faucets and sinks.

– Read (with a trend-spotting eye) trade and consumer magazines. See something cool? Tear it out and stick it to the wall. Let the Innovation Team mull them over. Ideas may crystallize.

– Buy new and competitive products. Tinker with them in a War Room. It’s amazing what will emerge.

– Buy your own service. Experience the process. Where does it shine? More importantly, where is it frustrating? What can be made easier and better?

– Ask your customers. For customer-facing organizations, customers often are your best trend spotters. When I was at Airspray we convened with multitude of disciplines. But most came from customers via sales, rife with bias and lacking filter.

– Set an agenda for trend management. Along with feeding the Idea Hopper, plan to manage ideas and attack the opportunities they present.

Trend spotting in the innovative workplace is by necessity a persistent activity. Opportunities emerge for competitive advantage. Competitive forces constantly emerge that require reaction. It’s a natural part of a corporate evolution, whether related to new product or services development, or the establishment of new internal processes meant to improve the organization itself.

Aristotle is thought to have said, “Excellence is not an act, but a habit.” Replace “Excellence” with “trend spotting.” And embrace the mandate.

By Robert Brands (with Jeff Zbar)

Robert Brands is the founder of InnovationCoach.com, and the author of “Robert’s Rules of Innovation”: A 10-Step Program for Corporate Survival, with Martin Kleinman and which will be published in March by Wiley (www.robertsrulesofinnovation.com).