Back to the Future

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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.

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

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 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

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.

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…

Thank you for reading this article, I really hope you enjoyed it. If you did, I’d love you to subscribe to my blog at to get new thoughts sent to you on an infrequent basis, and find me on twitter @johnJsills

2 Thoughts

  1. Another great read, John, thank you. Just a thought that this sparked.

    Stuart Brand does a wonderful job of talking about ‘clock speeds’ of change, where some things change faster than others. Consider a set of concentric spinning circles and you’ll note that those further away from the centre will spin faster…circles like like technology and fashion. Those circles nearer the centre/core, like values (e.g. importance of family), tend to move slower, taking much longer for change to occur.

    And of course anthropologists like the wonderful Dr Robin Pharaoh have taught me that some things, like rituals, never change and their importance will always be the same. Consider breaking bread with someone, transitioning into womanhood or manhood or saying goodbye at the time of a loved one passing.

    Thanks again, John

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