Trend Forecasts Are Trending. And That’s A Problem.
By Doug Stephens
Suppose for a moment there’s an asteroid heading for earth. You’d likely want to know a few things. How big is it, how likely is it to impact the planet and if it does, how much devastation will it cause? Fortunately for us, NASA tracks exactly this sort of information in excruciating detail, avoiding the chaos and panic that might otherwise accompany this kind of event.
Unfortunately, the same level of rigor is less frequently applied to consumer trend forecasts and the degree to which they may impact businesses. And as you’ve undoubtedly noticed, there are literally thousands of trend forecasts being published and the degree of research discipline they’re built with varies wildly, so separating reality from hype and the truth from the trite can be difficult.
When A Trend Isn’t A Trend
For starters, many things get called trends even if they’re technically not trends at all. Just because something has happened more than once, does not immediately qualify it as a trend. Secondly, many forecasts tend to apply equal weighting or urgency to every trend, portraying each as an asteroid, capable of knocking your business off its axis.
This broad-brush approach to forecasting is problematic because it makes it extremely difficult for the average business leader to discern just how much of a threat (or opportunity) each trend actually represents to their business. This, in turn, makes it nearly impossible to prioritize which to deal with first. And when every observed phenomenon is deemed to have equal potential impact, it renders the development of an appropriate response impossible.
Shaking Faith In Futurism
By calling everything a trend, we also discredit the practice of trend analysis, leading the business community to believe that futurism, as a field, is no better than a room full of chimpanzees throwing darts at pages of buzzwords. This loss of faith in the value of futurism in turn, leads to increased short-termism among businesses which inevitably leads to unforeseen problems.
It might help to agree first on what a trend actually is.
A trend is typically defined as a sustained change or progression in a particular direction over time. These qualifiers of progression, direction and time are important. Simply because something has become noticeable, recurrent or popular, it doesn’t necessarily qualify it as a trend. As importantly, just because something is a trend, doesn’t automatically suggest you need to take action on it.
Sorting Out What Really Matters
So, as you trawl through the galaxy of upcoming trend forecasts it might help to seek answers to the following questions along the way.
Is this truly a trend? Or is this merely a small number of occurrences of a given phenomenon within a relatively short period of time? Are instances of the phenomenon occurring in experimental circumstances or are they playing out in-market? Does this phenomenon solve a genuine business problem or serve a legitimate consumer need?
If this is indeed a trend then…
- What is its scale? What markets, verticals, industries or consumer groups does it encompass and hold direct or indirect implications for? Is it something that is occurring regionally, nationally or globally?
- What is the trajectory? Are the numbers of examples and/or use-cases escalating, descending or flat-lining? Is financial investment in this trend growing, declining or stagnating?
- What is the speed? Is it developing rapidly or slowly and what market and societal conditions are likely to accelerate or impede that development
- Does this trend apply to my business? How likely is it that this trend to directly or indirectly affect my industry, business or customers?
- What’s the potential downside/upside? If my business/industry were affected by this trend, what would the likely financial, structural or competitive impact or opportunity be?
- What’s the level of urgency? Based on the scale, trajectory, speed and likelihood of this trend to affect my business, how would I prioritize its importance? What resources, time and effort should I dedicate to addressing it?
In the end, creating a list of what’s happening is easy. The harder part is figuring out why it matters.