Bridging the Gap Between the Future and Business Reality

A Vision for Emerging Business

In this episode of our Creative Confidence Series, Joe Gerber, Managing Director of IDEO’s CoLab, talks about how to connect the dots between a vision of the future and a business that can make that vision a reality. Joe shares how the team at CoLab are using design fiction and cross-organizational stakeholder collaboration to uncover meaningful innovation and launch new ventures in the world of emerging technology, the Circular Economy, and more. Listen to more episodes of the Creative Confidence podcast.

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Joe Gerber wasn’t always a business designer. In fact, he began his career as a cancer biologist. But he has always been interested in experimentation, prototyping, and how to apply those concepts to abstract ideas and big, hairy challenges.

After getting his MBA and working as a product manager, Joe followed his curiosity into the world of business design. As IDEO’s first business designer and a frequent advisor and mentor at organizations like the Harvard iLab and Techstars, Joe has seen his fair share of business ideas—some that succeed wildly and many that fail to launch at all.

With so many emerging technologies on the horizon, how do you know when one is right for your business or might take hold in your industry? And even if you’re sure there’s potential, how do you close the gap between the future potential for this technology and a real-life, viable business that serves people?

Joe joined us on the Creative Confidence Series to share some of the approaches he’s come to rely on at IDEO’s CoLab. Alongside a diverse team of designers, entrepreneurs, engineers, and other creators who love to nerd out about the future, he’s working with some of today’s most innovative companies, governments, and NGOs to explore new businesses capitalizing on emerging tech and bring them to life.

Envision the Future

Bill Moggridge (an early IDEO founder who came up with the concept of a laptop where the screen folds over the keyboard) talked about “preferred futures.” In this view, rather than saying the future just happens and you can't control it, we have the mindset of asking “what future do we want to create?” And how do we work backward to get there? Design fiction is one way we do that.

Design Fiction Activity

1. Pick an Industry

Joe illustrated the concept of design fiction with an insurance industry example. Insurance is there when something bad happens. It protects you from financial ruin. With insurance, there are many “jobs to be done” (also thought of as what the customer hopes to accomplish) including understanding and managing risk, creating contracts between the insurance company and the customer regarding what conditions elicit financial support, and payment of claims.

2. Write a Story About the Future

If you focus on these three “jobs to be done” (and don't get caught thinking about existing insurance companies and how they operate), you can begin to see how these jobs might change in the future. How might emerging technology affect them? And you can start to imagine many different futures.

For example, if we take the job of understanding risk, there’s a story to be told about machine learning and AI, and how we’ll be able to create more sophisticated risk models. More sophisticated risk models could lead to a more personalized approach to assessing risk and ultimately the ability to provide more relevant products to customers.

When writing a story about the future, Joe and team root their story in a human-centered perspective by continually asking the question “what future do we want to create?”

3. Back Out to Assumptions

Taking this future vision and story, Joe and his team work backward to uncover the assumptions made. Joe’s go-to provocation is inspired by Roger Martin and Jennifer Riel: What would have to be true to make this future a reality?

4. Prototype

Getting really clear on these key assumptions enables you to set up a debate about how best to begin working toward your business idea. Joe creates prototypes to test and learn if those assumptions are valid.


“Most of the challenges we're starting to work on—at IDEO and in the broader business world—are systemic in nature and require collaboration by definition.”
Joe Gerber


Collaborate to be Competitive

People often think their idea holds value because no one else has thought of it. In reality, many others have likely considered similar ideas. That’s not where the value is, Joe says. If anyone can steal your business idea and make it, it’s probably not that good of an idea in the first place. The value lies in how you bring that idea to life in a way that only you can.

This approach is at the core of how IDEO’s CoLab operates. A “platform for collaborative impact,” CoLab was built out of Joe’s experience seeing how effective it was to get a diverse group of people from across different organizations and industries in the same room working on the same challenge. Because each person is bringing unique capabilities and knowledge, you can tap into more resources than you would have alone.

Most of the challenges we're starting to work on—at IDEO and in the broader business world—are systemic in nature and require collaboration by definition. One example is the circular economy, which involves an ecosystem of stakeholders who sit in different parts of the value chain and need to work together to eliminate waste. You have retailers, distributors, and suppliers, and together they need to agree on a shared solution.

Similarly, there’s a lot to learn in collaborating with different non-competing stakeholders. When IDEO first started the CoLab in 2015, we were focused on the question, What is blockchain good for aside from bitcoin? We had multiple financial services companies joining us—Fidelity, Nasdaq, Citibank, and more. On the surface, you'd think they were competing with each other, but they didn't feel that way. In fact, they were happy to learn quicker together and bring their different perspectives to the table so we could understand different use cases. Citibank understands payments. Fidelity understands investing and business services. Nasdaq understands markets. They all brought different areas of deep knowledge and expertise to the table, which allowed them to build more advanced prototypes in less time and learn from that process faster.

For risky early-stage ventures, collaboration is much needed and can reduce the risk by spreading it across multiple partners. Instead of holding your cards close to the chest—a better strategy is transparency—collaborating with others to bring more ideas and perspectives to the table and finding a solution where everyone benefits.


“A better strategy is transparency—collaborating with others to bring more ideas and perspectives to the table and finding a solution where everyone benefits.”
Joe Gerber


Diversify your Innovation Portfolio

Beyond bringing new ideas to the table, cross-organizational collaboration is good for the bottom line. For starters, you can take on more risk and pursue more ideas without having to invest in redundant capabilities. You also don’t have to pick just one specialty area or niche—partnerships allow you to invest in more ideas. And it’s fun! One benefit that’s hugely valuable (but harder to measure) is the inspiration you gather from others and the creative solutions that come from pushing your thinking beyond your comfort zone.

Joe likes to think about this kind of collaboration like a stock portfolio. Any good financial planner will tell you that by diversifying your investments you’re reducing risk. By collaborating, you pool your resources and make it easier to try risky ideas, knowing most of them are going to fail. But you don't have to incur the full cost of making those bets. So when we work together as a group of, let's say, 10 companies, we can do a lot more than we could on our own. That's part of the business case.

To take it back to design fiction, it’s unlikely that there’s only one viable solution to get to that future, there are many avenues that may get you there and thus it’s important to diversify and have a number of bets.

Whether you work in the field of innovation, you’re an entrepreneur with a startup, or you have an idea for a business that you’re ready to explore, using the principles of design fiction and cross-organizational collaboration can help. Check out our 5-week business design course to go deeper on testing and prototyping different aspects of a new business.

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