How to forecast trends: the 5 essential skills you need to do it yourself

Want to future proof your business and produce client work that’s relevant in the next 5 years? Can’t afford an agency? These tips are for you.


Trend forecasting is not a god-given gift, nor is it a ‘knack’ or a sharpened sense of intuition: it’s a process and a set of skills that can be developed, much like any other skill. Whilst there are personality types and subject preferences that lend themselves to the profession, and like anything, your ability to do it improves with experience, the basics of it can be taught, just like anything else.


Whilst it is most often easier to hire a consultant (someone like me) to do the work for you, that’s not always a possibility, which is why I offer training courses for businesses and independent consultants to develop the skills needed to do it in-house, as part of their day job.


But to get started right now, you can work on mastering the skills and attitudes outlined below. These 5 steps are the essence of being a good trend forecaster or futurist, and they are what I teach my students. Adopting and mastering these will get you on your way to being a futurist for your own business, or adding it as an element to your client projects, and ultimately future-proofing every piece of work you do and ensuring your innovations and campaigns have relevance in our future world.


Your trend toolkit goes beyond stationery

1. Get some context (world thinking)

Your brand, project or consumer does not exist in a ‘silo’. It’s not a lone ranger floating at free will. It’s part of an ecosystem of connected moving parts that influence and impact each other. Those parts include human behaviours, industry change, brands, social and economic forces.


What are those things? How well do you know them? Get to know them well, understand them and their future, and you will be in a much better place to understand your business’ future.


Actions:

  • Identify the connected ‘moving parts’

  • Understand them more deeply through research and new networks

  • Do a little forecasting of their future, and the possible impacts it will have on your business.


2. Make research your hobby (become a sponge)

Research is the greatest hobby of the incurably curious. But it can have a bad reputation as being dull, academic and entrenched in rules, which is a misfit as the kind of research a trend forecaster does is almost always eye-opening and inspiring.


Good, solid research is the key factor in any kind of trend or futures thinking work. It’s the foundation for everything and it cannot be overlooked. This is where you need to become a sponge, soaking up every new shift in behaviour, attitude and innovation that you see, hear, read and experience – developing the ability to absorb and retain it all.


To be an effective sponge requires forming new habits: how clearly are you seeing the world? Do you really have your eyes and ears open? Are you noticing everything, or just what you want to notice?


Actions:

  • Disrupt your routine to see and understand new behaviour and perspectives more deeply

  • Broaden your research scope outside of where you typically look: read, watch and observe widely

  • Leave your personal taste at home, and see the world as a ‘neutral’ observer: unbiased, with fresh eyes.


3. Ask why and what if…? (challenge existing viewpoints)

Once we have started to assemble solid research, we have to think about its meaning. This is the futures bit: we take what we know and translate it into future possibilities.


We must take what we find and decode the impact on the project in question. We need to know why what we are seeing is taking place, so we can work out what it means for us.


This is really about critical thinking, asking “what if…?” and challenging existing formats and viewpoints, because that will prompt new ideas and innovations. It’s a very challenging part of the process because it requires questioning everything, including your own bias, viewpoints and beliefs, and using your creativity in a very different way.


Actions:

  • Ask why things are changing and what could happen as a result

  • Create future possibilities based on what we already know

  • Challenge perspectives (including your own) to innovate


4. Collaborate to innovate (spar with a diverse network)

It’s difficult to challenge your own viewpoints and ways of thinking if you work alone, and it can be very difficult to challenge the perspectives of others. However, it’s important to work on trend forecasting and futures projects with a diverse group of collaborators. This is the only way to ensuring your vision of the future is rich, considered and actionable.


So - you need to find a way of working with a group of people who each have different points of view to offer, and they challenge your view of the future. When I teach futures thinking, I use a lot of activities and assignments to bring the methods to life, and one includes a type of (the dreaded) ‘role play’ as a vehicle for contesting each other’s perspectives and reasoning. It's also easy to connect with personality type indicator tools such as Myers Briggs and Insights Discovery.


Collaboration is an important skill for the future. What better way to hone it than by learning the skills to anticipate the future?


Actions:

  • Build a network of collaborators who can constructively challenge your vision of the future

  • Don’t work with the same people every time

  • Consider using personality type indicators as a way of helping profile and assign ‘roles’


5. Human-first communication (tell a story)

How many presentations have you sat through where you slowly lost interest / focus / the will to live? This is invariably because it hasn’t been communicated human-first. If we want to remember things, we need to feel and experience them. We need to live them. We can make anything appealing if we communicate it with emotions and a story at the core.


If you can’t bring your trend forecast or vision of the future to life through immersive experiences and theatrical set design, there are other ways of telling a story without sending them to sleep with a stack of bullet-pointed slides. Fortunately, it’s as much about the storyteller as the story, so with the right manipulation, even a PowerPoint presentation can be the vehicle for an unforgettable legend.


Actions:

  • Tell a story with a beginning, middle and end

  • Communicate to people, not job roles

  • If you can create an experience for your audience, using more than the default two senses (hearing and seeing), all the better.


What next?

  • If this has helped you, please share it and help someone else!

  • If you want to learn more about how to do it yourself, you can sign up for one of my trend forecasting courses – see more details here, on my website.

  • If you’d like my help as a consultant or trainer for your business, please contact me :)

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