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117 / Re-Imagining the Future of Product, with Erica Orange

Hosted by Sean Flaherty & Paul Gebel




Erica Orange

The Future Hunters

Erica Orange is Executive Vice President & Chief Operating Officer of The Future Hunters, one of the world’s leading futurist consulting firms. She evaluates emerging social, technological, economic, political, demographic, and environmental trends – and identifies the strategic implications (the “So what?”) of those trends for several of the most influential Fortune 500 companies, trade associations, and public sector clients.

Erica’s ability to think critically and translate that into actionable and tangible strategies is what has made her an invaluable asset to clients.

Erica speaks to a wide range of global audiences about the macro trends that are shaping and impacting today’s landscape. She has spoken at TEDx and keynoted over 250 conferences around the world, including across Europe, Latin America, and Asia. She has authored numerous articles and industry white papers and has been featured in news outlets including Wired, NPR, Time, Bloomberg, and CBS This Morning. In 2020, she was named by Forbes as one of the world’s 50 Top Female Futurists.

Vision and Strategy are terms often used interchangeably. It’s easy to do, especially when the future is racing toward us. But when we conflate the notion of vision and strategy — as Eastman Kodak learned the hard way years ago — we confuse our objective with the path to achieving it. We can we adjust our mindset to think in terms of re-imagining the future of our products in a way that helps us avoid this trap, Erica Orange explains in today’s episode of Product Momentum.

Erica Orange is the Executive Vice President & Chief Operating Officer of The Future Hunters, one of the world’s leading futurist consulting firms. Erica uses futures thinking to help us understand the pace of change and evaluate trends in a rapidly changing world. By slowing things down, the future’s unknowns feel less ominous, more approachable. We get better at becoming comfortable with the ambiguity we confront every day.  

Erica explains how successful companies adapt their vision-driven strategies in real-time to fit uncertain, rapidly evolving markets.

“As we go into the future, successful companies need to begin with a blank slate for each strategy and reimagine what is appropriate and effective for each,” she says. “It goes back to the things that are all tried and true. Companies that do their future and their vision and their strategies in terms of the correct mental math will be the ones that get it right.”

Hold your vision near, Erica adds, and keep multiple strategies close by. This can make it easier to abandon the ones that aren’t working.

Be sure to catch the entire episode with Erica for a fresh take on the future! 

Paul [00:00:19] Hello and welcome to Product Momentum, where we hope to entertain, educate, and celebrate the amazing product people who are helping to shape our community’s way ahead. My name is Paul Gebel and I’m the Director of Product Innovation at ITX. Along with my co-host. Sean Flaherty, and our amazing production team, and occasional guest host, we record and release a conversation with a product thought leader, writer, speaker, or maker who has something to share with the community every two weeks.

Sean [00:00:43] Good morning, Paul. How are you doing today?

Paul [00:00:45] I’m fantastic, Sean. How are you?

Sean [00:00:47] I’m good. I’m really excited about this podcast episode with Erica Orange about change and the future and how we should be thinking about it as product leaders. She’s just got a lot of really great advice for us. I’m really excited about this.

Paul [00:00:59] Yeah. Skipping to the end, I think her definition of innovation was one of my favorites and I think it really challenges me whenever I encounter somebody like Erica. And she is just a great example of someone who can think, outside the box doesn’t even come close. I think the way that we get into the headspace of futures thinking, it’s a different lane. It’s a different way of thinking, and I’m really excited to share this with our audience.

Sean [00:01:19] Yeah, there’s a lot of great nuggets in here. Let’s get after it.

Paul [00:01:22] Let’s get after it.

Paul [00:01:26] Well hello everyone and welcome to the pod. Today, we are delighted to be joined by Erica Orange. She’s the Executive Vice President and Chief Operating Officer of The Future Hunters, one of the world’s leading futurist consulting firms. She evaluates emerging social, technological, economic, political, demographic and environmental trends and identifies the strategic implications, the “So what?” Of those trends for several of the most influential Fortune 500 companies, trade associations, and public sector clients.

Paul [00:01:53] Erica’s ability to think critically and translate that into actionable and tangible strategies is what has made her an invaluable asset to clients. She speaks to a wide range of global audiences about the macro trends that are shaping and impacting today’s landscape. She’s spoken at TEDx and keynoted over 250 conferences around the world, including across Europe, Latin America, and Asia. She’s authored numerous articles and industry white papers, and she’s been featured in news outlets, including Wired, NPR, Time, Bloomberg, CBS This Morning. And in 2020, she was named by Forbes as one of the World’s Top 50 Female Futurists. Erica, thanks so much for making the time to join us today.

Erica [00:02:28] Thank you so much for having me.

Paul [00:02:30] Absolutely. So just to jump in, you know, futurism and futurist thinking is somewhat of a novel concept to some in our audience. Can you elaborate on the importance of vision when it intersects with this concept of futurist thinking, especially as it pertains to product management and what possibilities and outcomes might apply?

Erica [00:02:50] Absolutely. So really, when it comes down to being a futurist, it comes down to really understanding, I think, one key thing, and that is change, and more broadly, the pace of change. And it’s made my job both more exciting and more complex because we know that change is happening faster than ever before. So knowing that this is the environment that we all have to get comfortable operating in, if we think of arrows going off in multiple directions, the roadmap is just exploding with possibilities and different futures. And so many people will come to me and ask about strategy, right, what is my strategy going into the future? And we have to start kind of backpedaling a little bit and answering, I think, the more fundamental question there, which is, what is my vision? You have to start first with that vision.

Erica [00:03:39] And what really is the difference? The difference is that strategy has to be flexible and malleable, knowing that change is going to be that constant. If we put vision first, what becomes important for anyone and everyone, regardless of industry, is clearly defining who you are, what you stand for, what matters, and having that trickle down throughout the organization and then creating the strategies with which to best get you to that vision that you have clearly articulated. And again, this is critical no matter who you are, where you work, across geography, across functional areas.

Erica [00:04:17] And one of the kind of cautionary tales, right, I mean, we’re in Rochester, and Kodak is always that cautionary tale of a company that in a prior economy was so wedded to their strategies, they held so close to the best, how they did, what they did, but what did they lose sight of? They lost sight of their vision and what they could have owned and become in the future.

Paul [00:04:39] That’s a great distinction. I think that’s one that’s often overlooked. And we say strategy and vision in the same breath as if they’re are often interchangeable terms. But they really couldn’t be more distinct. The vision, as you mentioned, is that the place where we’re going, and the strategy is how we’re going to get there. Did I get that right? Is that about it?

Erica [00:04:56] Yeah, absolutely. And for anyone in product management, a visual that is really helpful for me when I think about strategy is a series of parallel railroad tracks, right? It’s not just strategy as one big overarching set of strategies. We need to go back to the drawing board and task ourselves with identifying what those very near-term set of strategies are, so let’s say, current day to 12 to 18 months from now and have that be its own separate track, have the next parallel track be two or three years, the next parallel track be 3 to 5, the next one 5 to 8, and beyond. And then know through your vision what is effective and appropriate for each one of these tracks and be able to hop on and off each one of them and nimbly if what you’re doing just frankly doesn’t work and be able to scrap those strategies for the adoption and accumulation of entirely new ones.

Sean [00:05:56] So who do you think is doing this really well?

Erica [00:05:59] I mean, that’s a great question. It’s really hard to answer that, only because I don’t know… Unless you’re internal, really, to a company, how they project themselves externally is a completely different animal. You know, in the CPG sector, I even look at a company like Nike and what they have been able to do with three very distinct strategies for three distinct environments: the real world, the digital world, and the virtual world, and as a consumer products company, be able to reimagine each one of these distribution channels completely differently, knowing that to be successful in the real versus digital versus virtual is never a cut and paste strategy. And that’s what companies get wrong. They take the lessons that they glean in one and apply them to the other.

Erica [00:06:50] And I think any successful company going into the future will have to have a blank slate for each and have to reimagine what is appropriate and effective in each. It goes back to, again, these are all tried and true things. We know that the introduction of any new distribution channel is not subtractive, it is multiplicative. So the companies that do their strategies and their future and their vision in terms of the correct mental math, which is multiplication, will be the ones that get it right.

Sean [00:07:22] So your proposition here is that every time you add a new distribution channel, it’s multiplicative.

Erica [00:07:27] Mm-hm.

Sean [00:07:28] I’ve never heard that before, but it’s intriguing to me. So explain what you mean by that.

Erica [00:07:33] Yes. Two classic examples: media and retail. So for all the times that they were saying that magazines and newspapers were going away, people still wanted to physically hold something. And what it does in the brain, called co-location, to actually hold and feel and tactilely read something in print is very different. The learning mechanisms are different. So it’s different distribution channels? The same is true in retail. My God, the amount of times people would tell me, “E-commerce is going to take over and then e-commerce, it’s going to go into the metaverse and all of this and brick and mortar is going to be dead.” Brick and mortar is not going to be dead. It’s just that, again, we have to completely reimagine the unique value proposition of each.

Erica [00:08:20] So for a clothing retailer, people still didn’t want to return items, they wanted to try them on. That’s the unique value proposition of the store, or even what Samsung is doing with the Samsung experience. It’s drawing the consumer in a new way. So we have to view each one as basically a blank canvas ripe for imagination versus just applying old strategies, like pouring old wine into new bottles, it’s not going to work. But we know that those original streams and economies are not going to disappear. Everything layers always on top of each other.

Sean [00:08:54] Okay. And you defined three different channels here. The real world, the virtual world, at least from Nike’s perspective, and the digital world. What’s the difference between the digital world and those other two?

Erica [00:09:05] Well, I mean, the real world is just the real world. That’s how we’ve always operated for all of human history. The digital world was the move into the Internet and e-commerce and everything that the economy ushered in the later part of the 1990s and we’ve been in the throes of, right, for the better part of the last couple of decades. And now we’re at the precipice of entering what some have dubbed Web 3.0. And a lot of the visions around the metaverse have stalled, although the bigger, broader view of the virtual world and some of those applications, I think, are here to stay.

Erica [00:09:41] So a lot of the buzz and the hype now is around the consumer-centric versions. You know, and a lot of the technology companies are creating the headsets and wanting people to create avatars to go into these worlds. And for me, I think there’s much more utility in the second prong of this, which is the rise of the enterprise Metaverse, how companies are going in and creating digital twins of their enterprises. And if we link this back to the future of product management, many more people are going to be moving into these virtual worlds to prototype products first using a digital twin and then using the insights gleaned from these 3D virtual mirror worlds to then inform the whole 360 process of how they do what they do in the real world. So whether it’s the discovery phase, the planning phase, the implementation phase, the development phase, any of these things, it can be built first in these digital twins.

Paul [00:10:39] Yeah. Just this morning there was a really interesting example of that in the Times, there was a piece on how an African artifact was reappropriated back to its native country, but it was replaced with a, you know, very high-fidelity digital twin. And there’s a whole new world in just museum science opening. As, you know, product people we can now study and share and produce a history and an experience that is really unprecedented, where we can be in the moment in sort of the presence of others in ways that we haven’t really tapped into in a long time. When we were chatting before the show, you used a phrase that I want to dig into, changing topics just slightly. The phrase was escape velocity. And you talked about how sort of resilience and adaptability meet in this idea. I’m wondering, can you define that term escape velocity and share a little bit about how that might be a concept for product managers to dig into?

Erica [00:11:29] Yeah, absolutely. So I obviously didn’t create the term escape velocity because this is a physics term which basically is the gravitational pull of an object. And really what this means in business terms is the fact that we have to get more comfortable adjusting and adapting in near real-time to all of these different realities, knowing that things are just accelerating at such an unprecedented rate. And it feels like we are being shot out of a cannon and all of these things are happening, again, at a faster and faster clip.

Erica [00:12:02] And one of the biggest silver linings, I think, to come out of the better part of the last 2 to 3 years in particular when we just had this macro pause of all aspects of our world, right, is that it really started to force us to reexamine a lot of the things that, one, didn’t work, or two, things that we weren’t paying sufficient attention to that were going to define the world. So what do I mean by that? So one of the things that it did was that it ushered in a lot of the new ways of working. So 15 years ago, I was talking about the rise of virtual, flexible, hybridized, and distributed work. And people thought that I was crazy because they kept telling me, they were like, “Erica, in order to be productive and drive efficiency, people have to be physically co-located.”

Erica [00:12:55] And we realized that when time and space become more decoupled and we can work from anywhere at any time and whenever we really want to, we just have to get comfortable shifting those metrics away from input to output. And we started valuing and measuring output in completely new ways. And that’s a huge benefit to a lot of workers. And that was one of the things that again, was kind of shot through this escape velocity cannon. Also our use of technology: automation, robotics, artificial intelligence, I mean, that’s another rabbit hole that we can go down is what we see happening with AI.

Erica [00:13:33] But a lot of people were uncomfortable with traditional, you know, human-to-human touch points, and they wanted a lot of these tools to come in and help them do their jobs not only more efficiently, but allow them to migrate to more meaningful and productive forms of work. And then again, just a lot of kind of our reward structures that we would use internally, the fact that immediate stakeholder gratification and shareholder results and all of these things just frankly didn’t work. It placed new urgency, I think, on two very critical things. One is strategic foresight. Everyone is being forced to think more long-term because things are happening much more quickly.

Erica [00:14:14] And two is differentiation. We saw that no company today can just say, “I’m in the business of X,” knowing that every company in some way is a technology company and they’re going to have different functional units that are dedicated to different aspects of the economy. So to pigeonhole yourself, to just say, “I do this,” is going to be much harder to define in the future.

Paul [00:14:35] That’s super interesting. I want to make sure that I have that right. So going back to the beginning of strategy versus vision, and we talked about those parallel paths of 1 to 3 years, 3 to 5, 5 to 8, 8 plus. Is escape velocity an organization’s ability to context switch between those streams effectively so that when one stops working, you can pivot quickly? Is that what you mean by escape velocity? Is it the ability to say, “This strategy is or isn’t working,” and adapt in real-time?

Erica [00:15:02] Yeah, absolutely. Because again, I go back to what I said to just abandon in real-time all of those things that frankly aren’t working, which makes long-term planning significantly harder, but also a significant necessity. So it’s kind of a double-edged sword because it is going to be much harder to figure out what it is that you’re going to need for this future, but at the same time, we all have to think as if we were futurists.

Sean [00:15:28] Okay. So if I could reframe sort of what I heard you say about strategic foresight and product differentiation, or differentiation in general, you know, you said, “Every company is a technology company.” So I kind of see those two things as what you’re prescribing as the skills of the future. And the third one that you brought up a couple of times now is the actual ability to scrap the thing that you’ve been working on for however many months. Like, we’ve got to build that muscle in order to effectively compete.

Erica [00:15:58] You’re absolutely right. Yes. To just be comfortable abandoning all of those things that do not work. And that’s why I always say, what it is that we know and what we do, we always think of as a great asset, right? Like our skill sets are assets, what we deliver as a company is an asset. But we also have to flip our thinking and think of the opposite and ask ourselves, “What if these things were liabilities?” Because it can be both an asset and a liability. And it becomes a liability because if we hold so closely to the vest, all of those strategies and all those ways of thinking without going back to the drawing board and thinking, “All right, what doesn’t serve us, what actually doesn’t work, what is no longer appropriate and effective for where this future is going?”

Erica [00:16:41] And I caution a lot of people when we talk about the new skill sets and the competencies and all of those things that are going to futureproof us now and in the years to come, is that we can talk so much about lifelong learning, right? That’s all the buzz now. We all have to learn for the rest of our lives and acquire all of this new information. But what if we pause and think about how we become lifelong forgetters? And very few of us are comfortable getting on that forgetting curve because we pride ourselves on what we know. But what if what we know isn’t going to serve that future? So, you know, I would just kind of tell anyone listening to this too to just take a moment and identify those two or three things, those two or three heuristics, skill sets, whatever it is, that just no longer work for where things are moving. And what do we feel comfortable actually starting to forget?

Sean [00:17:32] You know, just to close the loop on the Kodak story, I think that’s a great story of not scrapping, you know, essentially this 100-year baby when they should have, like, “we’ve got this beautiful thing, this cash cow, it’s producing a lot of revenue, and we can see the future coming, but we just refuse to give it up and move on.” And now we all see what happens when you don’t do that. So…

Erica [00:17:53] Yeah, I mean, there are again, a series of cautionary tales. We see this on the retail side. I mean, just think of all of the big box retailers that couldn’t see beyond what they did and they couldn’t innovate quickly enough. They lost market share, they lost consumers, and then, you know, they just become lists in a BuzzFeed story about all of those failures in the ’90s and the early 2000s when things began to really transform and nobody could see the forest through the trees and then the future passed them by.

Sean [00:18:24] It happens to me even as a consumer sometimes. I get attached to a product and it becomes a tool that I integrate into my life, and then they just seem to stop updating the roadmap or keeping up with the competition. And it’s painful to move when you’ve invested so much of your energy in learning an ecosystem.

Erica [00:18:40] Well, and honestly, that is going to be the story of our lives and that is going to be the reality that the youngest of generations are going to have to deal with. Because even when you extrapolate that out and you think of the current educational system, you think, “What is the value of higher education, if what they are learning their freshman year is already outdated by their senior year? So what is the ROI?” And we have to go back to the drawing board to think how we are actually educating younger people today. For what economy, for what jobs, with what skill sets? So, you know, there are business use cases, but also if we really think more broadly, just again, it goes to that quickening of every single aspect of the macro environment.

Paul [00:19:24] Yeah. Well between AI and Gen Z, it sounds like we have a whole ‘nother conversation in the tank if we could get you back on to talk about those. But I have one more that I wanted to get to based on our conversation earlier. It’s about a word that you use, this one might be your own, called templosion, which I believe is a portmanteau of tempo and explosion if I remember correctly. And it was the idea that we think about scenario planning mostly in the traditional sense through the lens of silos, really, breaking things down into component parts. And the rate of change has warped and really placed a new emphasis on scenario planning frameworks. And I’m wondering if you can help contextualize, what does this concept of templosion mean? Did I get that right or not? And then how do you think about scenario planning? And are there frameworks that a product manager sitting in front of their team today might be able to take away and apply some principles to in learning to build out a roadmap or a strategy a little bit differently?

Erica [00:20:18] Yep. So I will take credit for that term. We as a firm created that term about a decade and a half ago because when we saw the economy really beginning to shift and we framed it as not just a recession but a fundamental transformation, we said that that transformation was being catapulted by new understandings of time. So it was actually the temporal implosion of time. And it sounds very complex, but it’s very simple. It’s basically the idea that the biggest of things, the biggest of events, are all happening in shorter and shorter periods of time. So it simultaneously feels like time is on steroids while time is also being truncated.

Erica [00:20:53] So, you know, going back to what we were talking about before with strategy and innovation. All of these cycles that are well-understood in the business environment are all getting shorter and shorter. So whether it’s R&D planning cycles, financial planning cycles, strategic planning cycles, also knowing that the average lifespan of a Fortune 500 company can be as little as 15 years, with CEO tenure alongside of it dropping precipitously, we have this environment where, again, all of these things are just getting rapidly shortened so that there’s new urgency around the value propositions of time. Speed to market, speed of creation, kind of the old Chinese model of innovation, right? It’s, build it, test it on the backs of consumers, figure out what doesn’t work, go back to the drawing board, and you’re in a constant cycle of iteration, innovation, iteration, innovation.

Erica [00:21:45] And for anyone in product management, scenario planning has a role. We as a firm don’t use scenario planning traditionally only because while it does serve its value, it absolutely does; you can envision multiple futures knowing that there are going to be multiple futures. The only thing that we have to start forcing ourselves to think about, which traditional scenario planning does not quite get us there, are all of the unexpected and unanticipated consequences that are second and third order.

Erica [00:22:15] So we can plan for that first order. We can say, you know, kind of a butterfly effect: “Here’s that first ripple; if we have a social trend, here is a political, an economic, a cultural implication, a technological one.” But then beyond that, it becomes really, really hard to predict. And it’s in the second and third order where all of both the exciting possibilities, but then also the risks, the risk management implications, that’s where we really have to focus. So that’s why I go back to the point about strategic foresight perhaps being one of the biggest things that we have to focus on today, because it’s thinking in terms of leapfrogging beyond what we’re already seeing, to think of what that unknown and those kind of X variables are going to be.

Sean [00:23:06] Awesome. Well, we’re getting close to the end of our time here and we’ve got a couple of questions we ask all of our guests. One that’s really important to me is, what are you learning? What are you reading these days?

Erica [00:23:15] Oh man. So we read all the time. I have a six-year-old, so I don’t have time to actually read books anymore. I feel like my time is also, I live templosion on a day-to-day basis, but a lot of the publications I read, everything from The Economist to MIT Technology Review to, I mean, we’re doing about 80 abstracts every month from just curated sources. It all just comes down to pattern recognition.

Sean [00:23:45] If you had to pick one book to recommend to our listeners, what would it be?

Erica [00:23:49] Well, I’m going to get very existential. I just read a book on DMT, and I think in the context of a lot of what we’ve talked about on a kind of big, broad, you know, kind of quantum physics level, it becomes really interesting to think of where AI could go and what some of the mystics and ancients knew.

Sean [00:24:09] Fascinating.

Erica [00:24:11] Not a business book, but…

Paul [00:24:13] No. That might be a third episode to get you back for. Our last [question] that we ask all of our guests, and I think I heard you allude to an answer for this one already, but I want to ask it as its own question, what is your definition of innovation? It’s a question we ask all of our guests and we love getting the different perspectives. But what does innovation mean to you personally?

Erica [00:24:32] So innovation to me has become fairly co-opted and a little bit of a cliché term. So what I mean by that is, I ask a lot of people if they are being innovative and hands always go up, and I ask them what they’re actually innovating around, and so much of it is just straight-line extrapolation and linear thinking based on what came before it. And that’s not true innovation. So to me, innovation, we actually like making up words, I think we need a new term for it because I think true innovation is about going back to the drawing board and completely reimagining all that came before it. And going back to what I said before, seeing things as a true blank canvas without any of the preconceived notions and just infusing it with wonder and imagination. And so little of innovation as it exists today is that. So that’s less how I would define it and more what I hope eventually it will become.

Paul [00:25:31] I love that aspirational take.

Sean [00:25:32] Love that.

Paul [00:25:33] Well, Erica, it has been an absolute joy getting to unpack some of these ideas. I’ve learned a ton just in our brief time talking together and I’m sure our audience as well. I can’t thank you enough for taking the time today to join us so thanks.

Erica [00:25:44] Yes. Paul, Sean, thank you so much. This was such a pleasure and hope to chat with you guys again soon.

Paul [00:25:50] Absolutely. Cheers.

Sean [00:25:51] Awesome.

Erica [00:25:52] Cheers.

Paul [00:25:55] Well, that’s it for today. In line with our goals of transparency and listening, we really want to hear from you. Sean and I are committed to reading every piece of feedback that we get. So please leave a comment or a rating wherever you’re listening to this podcast. Not only does it help us continue to improve, but it also helps the show climb up the rankings so that we can help other listeners move, touch, and inspire the world, just like you’re doing. Thanks, everyone. We’ll see you next episode.

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