Predict the Future for your Product


At INDUSTRY: The product Conference in 2016, Ken Norton gave a keynote that encouraged product people to think about the world that their products will live within 30 years from now. It may seem extreme, but Ken suggested that this is not only possible but will make us all better as product people for the products we manage today.

Since that talk, Ken wrote an essay for product managers titled Predicting the Future that further explored that line of thought.

In this INDUSTRY Interview, Mike Belsito talks to Ken about how predicting the future can help you make better product decisions today.

Why should you think of the future?

Ken points out that if you think about why companies fail and why they succeed, there are often external forces that played a big part in their success or failure. The product people in those organizations may not have seen those external forces because they were so focused on the day to day details present in every product person’s life.

You need to stop every so often, take a step back and look at the bigger picture. Ken suggested that you try to think about what the world will look like in 30 years. He picked 30 years because it’s so far away that you won’t be inclined to worry about little technical details and micro trends and instead think of the broader trends that will take place.

How do you go about looking into the future?

It’s important to remember, as Ken put it, “We’re not futurists, and most futurists aren’t very good at predicting the future either.”

You don’t want to try to paint a precise picture of a specific future, You want to explore the possible ranges of outcomes. You want to think about what might happen 30 years from now, what might be ubiquitous, what problems people may face, how they’ll approach solving those problems, and how your product might fit into that.

Think about the different forces that will shape what the world will look like. “ What might happen if this happens, what might happen if that happens and how might that affect us? And how likely do we think this is versus that.”

If you’re looking for a technique you can use, it’s helpful to look at military and traditional business that use an approach called scenario planning. There’s an acronym that they use called STEEP, which stands for Social, Technology, Economic, Environmental and Political. It’s a way to force you to think about the forces apart from Technology that could impact your product.

With that in mind, think about 30 years from now, forget about your product, your bug queue, and your next version. What do you think the world might look like? What does that mean for you? What does that mean for where your product can be? What opportunities can you start to seize on? What things are you betting on now that may actually become irrelevant or replaced by something else?

Remember, you’re not creating a 30 year roadmap – that would be ridiculous.

What are the benefits of looking 30 years into the future?

Taking this look 30 years into the future helps you identify opportunities and threats without getting hung up on today’s technology or your immediate plans. You can have a clearer view of where your product should go next and what your priorities should be.

Another benefit of this sort of exercise is that you get people excited and thinking about a future that they want to create and be a part of. Ken hopes that looking at the future through that lens makes you more excited about the present, not less excited or more panicked.

Can predicting the future cause you to be too early to market?

Yes, it is possible.

To reduce the odds of that happening, Ken suggests that you draw the line between today and 30 years from now. Start with what you thought 30 years would look like and then consider what needs to happen for that to happen. Then identify what other things need to happen in order to get where you think things will end up and determine what is in your power versus what’s in someone else’s power.

How can you differentiate broad trends versus fads?

Ken suggested that to tell the difference between a fad that will come and go versus a broad trend you need to separate the implementation from the problem.

Think about the problem that you’re trying to solve, and whether that problem will still exist, and still be relevant in 30 years. If you think that problem will still exist and is worth solving, consider the different ways that problem might be solved at that point.

You’ll be able to separate out the specific technology – which is where fads usually come from – and think instead about problems and how important those problems will continue to be.

How to find out more

Watch the video to see Ken and Mike’s full conversation, and to see Mike don a Kevin Durant jersey in order to pay off a bet.

If you’d like to see more of Ken’s thoughts you can follow him on Twitter @kennthn or at his website

Kent McDonald

Kent J McDonald writes about and practices software product management. He has IT and product development experience in a variety of industries including financial services, health insurance, nonprofit, and automotive. Kent currently practices his craft for a leading agriscience company and provides just in time resources for product owners and business analysts at and Product Collective. When not writing or product managing, Kent is his family’s #ubersherpa, listens to jazz and podcasts (but not necessarily podcasts about jazz), and collects national parks.