loader image

We all know that companies that thrive in the future share certain traits. They need to listen to core customers and excel at sensing new trends.

What if these seemingly obvious requisites are wrong? What if understanding customers and trends is actually detrimental to your ability to prepare for the future?

These are some observations from former President of Disney Imagineering Bran Ferren, whose former boss Michael Eisner once put him in charge of “dreaming about the future” and “showing [Disney] new and innovative ways to tell stories.”

Ferren is one of the most prolific and successful business innovators of the last three decades. He can be called an architect, a vehicle designer, an engineer, a sound and light designer, a visual effects expert, a scientist, and much more. He and business partner Danny Hillis also patented “multi-touch gestures” in 2005; in 2013, that invalidated the patent for Apple’s famous “pinch-to-zoom” technology.

Ferren has done tons, in Silicon Valley and beyond. We got a chance to sit down with Ferren to learn how he does it (click here to listen to the podcast of that interview). Here are five key lessons from him that could help you out-innovate your competition and thrive in … or, even better, shape … the future.

1. Don’t talk to customers or track trends
“Keeping track of trends as a way of planning for the future is a waste of time,” Ferren says. Rather, you need to be experimenting ahead of trends and trying to shape the future. Consider the Disney FastPass+, which the company has recently been lauded for. The discussions that led to that innovation began 25 years ago.

“We were talking about building personal digital assistants to take you through the theme park before smartphones even existed,” says Ferren. His team had worked through major challenges like booking attractions, finding lost children, and waiting on lines – but the primary technology (the connected phone) wasn’t there yet. When it was, Disney was closer to ready because it had spent time trying to shape the future. Some fiscal analysts have since called the FastPass “game-changing” for Disney stock and future innovation.

Key takeaway: Those innovations didn’t come from focus groups, trend-tracking, or anything of the like; they started with a team trying to shape the future.

2. Experimentation is the path to unraveling “the future dilemma”
The “future dilemma” is the simple idea that by the time you can see the future, it’s already too late. Remember: most major innovations of human history were things that no one specifically asked for at the time. (Henry Ford’s famous quote is that if he had asked his customers what they wanted, they would have said “a faster horse.”)

To shape the future, then, you need to be willing to experiment even if you have no idea whether your experimentation will flop revenue-wise. This is easier for companies that are already well-established on a balance sheet, but it can be done by anyone. Think about Nokia: they almost filed for bankruptcy as a paper and forestry company, but they had a small phone business buried in their service lines. That allowed them to experiment, compete, and eventually capture market share. As major companies like Google prove again and again, organizational breakthroughs come from anywhere – Gmail is one such example – and so you need to foster a sense of experimentation among your teams, even if that experimentation might not help you “make the quarter” this time around.

3. Passion over profits
Peter Drucker has explained this concept well, although some senior executives are still not there yet: profits are the result of organizational actions, not the goal of organizational actions. Ferren further bolsters Drucker’s point by noting that because transformative innovations rarely look profitable upon their conception (as pointed out above), innovators must apply something else to guide their efforts. He suggests passion. Without passion you cannot fight through the doubters and hurdles that life will drop in front of your innovation.

“Go with your passion,” says Ferren. “And if you don’t have passion, you need to find it.”

4. Execution over ideation
Many companies and senior executives like to trumpet themselves as “innovative,” but there’s a tree-falls-in-the-forest component to that line of thinking. You can have the most innovative ideas in history, but … what happens if you don’t execute on them? No one knows the ideas existed at all. “I know at least three companies who claim they invented the iPhone,” says Ferren. “The difference is that Apple actually executed and realized the idea.”

5. Innovation should be an ecosystem
Many companies try to assign too much process to innovation, conceiving of innovation as a production line. They create one group to design the innovation, another to select ideas, a different one to implement. They create stage-gate, linear processes. But innovation is better conceived as an ecosystem, in Ferren’s eyes. You want lots of ideas competing with each other, with the best ones winning out. That creates long-term growth.

“At Disney, we’d structure competing teams that would work on the same problem,” he explains. “This helps ensure you find the best ideas and don’t settle for just good enough.”

If you break some of Ferren’s key thoughts down a more granular level, here’s what you come to:

  • Shape the future instead of trend-tracking
  • Follow passions instead of just the bottom line
  • Focus on execution, instead of ways to create ideation
  • Abandon your innovation process and instead create healthy innovation ecosystem
“8Ps” of StrategyOpportunity
for Disruption
Recommended Leverage Points
Position- The farmers, individual and corporate, that you are targeting.

- The need of the agricultural industry that you seek to fill.
3- What technologies do you control that can help you tap into market
segments that you previously thought unreachable?

- What are the potential business alliances you could think about with key players in the segment to serve your customers with integrated solutions? (Serving customers with more integrated solutions example: serving farmers with fertilizers, crop protection and other).
Product- The products you offer, and the characteristics that affect their value to customers.

- The technology you develop for producing those products.
8- What moves are your organization taking to implement Big Data and analytics to your operations? What IoT and blockchain applications can you use?

- What tools and technology could you utilize or develop to improve food quality, traceability, and

- How can you develop a more sustainable production model to accommodate constraints on arable

- What is the future business model needed to serve new differentiated products to your customers?
Promotion- How you connect with farmers and consumers across a variety of locations and industries.
- How to make consumers, producers, and other stakeholders aware of your products and services.
8- How are you connecting your product with individual and corporate farms who could utilize it?
- How could you anticipate market and customer needs to make customers interested in accessing your differentiated products?
PriceHow consumers and other members of the agricultural supply chain pay for access to agricultural products.7- What elements of value comprise your pricing? How do each of those elements satisfy the varying needs of your customers?
Placement- How food products reach consumers. How the technologies, data, and services reach stakeholders in the supply chain.9- What new paths might exist for helping consumers access the food they desire?
- How are you adapting your operations and supply chain to accommodate consumers’ desire for proximity to the food they eat?
- How could you anticipate customer expectation to make products more
accessible to customers/agile supply chain?
- Have you considered urbanization as a part of your growth strategy?
- How your food satisfies the needs and desires of your customer.
- How the services you provide to agribusiness fulfill their needs.
9- Where does your food rate on a taste, appearance, and freshness
- Could the services you provide to companies and farms in the agriculture industry be expanded to meet more needs?
- What senses does your food affect besides hunger? How does your
customer extract value from your food in addition to consumption?
Processes- Guiding your food production operations in a manner cognizant of social pressure.8- How can you manage the supply chain differently to improve traceability and reduce waste?
- How can you innovate systems in production, processing, storing, shipping, retailing, etc.?
- What are new capabilities to increase sustainability (impact on the environment, or ESG) components?
People- The choices you make regarding hiring, organizing, and incentivizing your people and your culture.- How are you leveraging the agricultural experience of your staff bottom-up to achieve your vision?
- How do you anticipate new organizational capabilities needed to perform your future strategy (innovation, exponential technologies needed, agile customer relationship, innovative supply chain)?
- How do you manage your talents to assure suitable development with exposure in the agrifood main challenges/allowing a more sustainable view of the opportunities/cross-sectors?