In the fourth part of John’s series on A Beginner’s Guide to Human Insight, he looks at the importance of considering the past, the present, and the future… 

In the first three articles of this series on Human Insight, I looked at broadening conversations, making connections, and challenging perspectives. What we haven’t yet talked about is something that’s often overlooked when truly understanding what your customers want – timing.

Most focus groups and research briefs are squarely aimed at getting to the heart of what’s behind people’s attitudes, behaviours, and motivations. And because they’re often driven by panicked executives needing to find a new way to make money as soon as possible, they’re usually focussed on the here and now, needing answers that can be turned into profit before the end of the next financial quarter.

We only exist in the present for a fleeting moment

However, we only exist in the present for a fleeting moment, an unstable part of our lives sandwiched between where we’ve come from and where we heading to. So to get real human insight to drive creativity, we need to look across the past, the present, and the future.

To get real human insight to drive creativity, we need to look across the past, the present, and the futureClick To Tweet

The Past

Weatherspoon’s Slough, 1644

 ‘We study history not to know the future but to widen our horizons, to understand that our present situation is neither natural nor inevitable, and that we consequently have many more possibility before us than we imagine’
– Yuval Noah Harari

Disappointingly for people who talk about the pace of change, the reality is that most things stay the same. 50 years ago, people in the UK were living in houses, working Monday to Friday, eating Roast Dinners, and moaning about the weather. People would get married, get drunk, get angry about trains and get old (not necessarily in that order). And that’s all pretty much the same now.

Of course, there are some tweaks along the way. People are now eating Quinoa, getting divorced more, and being old for longer, all of which create new opportunities to come up with interesting ideas.

The first step in any creative process should be to understand the past

But rather than throw the old out as soon as it stops appearing on Twitter, the first step in any creative process should be to understand the past, finding the things that don’t change and make those your rocks to build around.

Ask yourself:

  • Why did the industry / company appear in the first place?
  • What has always been true (because if it’s been true for the last 200 years, it’ll probably still be true in June)?
  • What changes in the past worked well, which didn’t, and why?

The Future

Weatherspoon’s Slough, 2144

‘The purpose of looking to the future is to disturb the present. It is only by being disturbed that we stand a better chance of shaping the future rather than being its victims.’
– Gaston Berger

My education in Future Trends came from the wonderful folk at Future Agenda, who also introduced me to quote above. People like to look to the future because it’s cool, it’s interesting, and it’s scary. But ultimately, the only reason to look to the future is to make better decisions today.

People like to look to the future because it’s cool

When looking to the future, it’s easy to get swept away on a tide of technological excitement, with the answer to every question being some form of new ‘reality’. But the only way to make looking to the future genuinely useful today is to keep humans front and centre, understanding the changes we’re likely to see, the implications they will have, and the opportunities they create.

Ask yourself:

  • How far into the future is it useful to look? ­ (The further you go, the more uncertainty there is)
  • What changes are we likely to see? (Using some kind of PESTLE model)
  • When are those changes likely to start to impact most people, and what can we do now to prepare? (Considering Gartner’s excellent Hype Cycle…)

So next time you’re gathering insight, build a timeline along the wall of a surprisingly large Tardis-like room, pulling together your understanding of the past with your beliefs of the future, and connecting them to what you know about your customers today. Then press a few buttons in your brain, and see where you end up.

The only reason to look to the future is to make better decisions todayClick To Tweet
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In the fourth part of John’s series on A Beginner’s Guide to Human Insight, he looks at the importance of considering the past, the present, and the future…  In the first three articles of this series on Human Insight, I looked at broadening conversations, making connections, and challenging perspectives. What...
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John J Sills
John is variously described as a facilitator, consultant, or coach, passionate about helping people find new and practical ways of doing things, through a better understanding of their customers. In the last 20 years he's done everything from a selling haberdashery on a market stall to creating a global customer experience strategy for one of the biggest companies in the world, always with post-its. Lots of post-its. Everywhere. He now helps others with their customer-led strategies, propositions, and experiences at The Foundation, based in London, and writes at johnJsills.com.