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Futurist Richard Watson shares a few snippets of his latest trend watching

7th October 2009

Richard Watson is a futurist, consultant and speaker, specialising in retail banking, newspapers, airlines and supermarkets, he advises organisations on the future. He focuses specifically on global trends and long term strategy. Every twelve weeks he publishes the What's Next report on global trend. Below are a few of those trends that Richard has highlighted for us.

1. Under-performing teams

Over the past 30-40 years the idea of using teams has become so ingrained in our culture as to be almost invisible. Nobody in their right mind, it seems, would dare to challenge the thought that working as an individual could ever as productive or efficient as working as part of a team. But is this really the case? According to J. Richard Hackman, a Professor of organisational psychology at Harvard University, the answer is that it depends.

The first reason that teams can under perform is that they are typically too large and suffer from what Hackman calls “ambiguous boundaries”. For example, in one study less than 10% of team members were able to agree upon who was actually on their team. Excessive size causes problems with co-ordination and also with motivation. Why do some teams get so big? One reason is that the desire to be inclusive often means that people are put on teams purely to avoid confrontation. The ideal size for a team, according to Hackman, is “in single figures” but teams of 20-30 plus are commonplace. As for networks and online teamwork the same rules generally apply. Virtual teams can be difficult to co-ordinate and suffer from what Jo Freeman calls “the tyranny of structurelessness”. A lack of physical contact, especially at the all important first meeting, can also cause major problems.

A second reason why teams often under-perform is that they are changed too frequently. Great teams can be decades in the making. But how do you stop long-lasting teams from becoming flaccid or complacent? One answer might be to very slowly rotate individual members, but a much better way is to introduce deviant thinkers from time to time. This notion is similar to the idea of having a “thinker in residence”, someone who is willing to say or do things that other people are not. A third and final issue is resources. There is a widespread belief that large teams will have access to greater resources, but the reverse is often the case. Large teams soak up time as well as money and it is precisely the lack of such resources that can create the sense of urgency and focus that are so critical to success.

2. Are we outsourcing the human mind?

A few months ago I was contacted by someone called Dan Bloom in South Korea. He was keen to promote a new word,’ screening’, which describes the way in which people, especially younger people, read information on screen. His point is a good one. Reading on paper and reading using a screen, especially on a mobile device, are two totally different things and people should think carefully about their intentions before committing information to either. His point also brings me neatly onto another discussion about e-reading. Specifically, why am I so troubled by the shift from paper to pixels? It could be because I’m getting old. I like what I like and all that. But I think there’s more to it than that.

If all information drifts towards the digital I think that something will be lost. Books are part of a system of understanding and the idea of ubiquitous instant access will change this. Physical libraries and bookshops are important because both contain people. They also contain adjacencies. You go in for one thing and leave with another because something, or someone, catches your eye. e-books and digital learning are different. They both short-circuit this process. That’s not all either. I went to a toyshop a few weeks ago and got speaking to someone in their twenties who told me that he likes to “own things”. He was talking about buying physical copies of computer games (as opposed to downloading digital copies) but I think that he hit a nail on the head. A physical book represents a journey. You can see progression as you slowly move through the physical pages. Books have weight, both literally and metaphorically. So a personal bookshelf is, in a sense, a physical record of where your mind has been throughout your life. Thus, keeping the words whilst throwing away the physical containers (books) would seem like a very bad idea. Digitalised information is extremely useful but taken to the extreme it fails to properly balance human needs. Human beings are social creatures. We crave physical interaction. This applies to people but it also applies to things. Yes, of course Google could scan every book ever written and make these texts instantly available. But somehow such a world would be strangely claustrophobic.

3. Delayed gratification in retail
You might think it quite normal that somebody puts off cleaning their room. But would they put off having a free massage? It seems they do, if the deadline for taking it is too far ahead. According to behavioural economists, people think they are more likely to enjoy a free gift if they have plenty of time to take advantage of it, but in fact, they are less likely to do it at all. People actually exercise too much self-control or “self-command”.

The disciplined self wants to put off pleasures, while the hedonistic self wants to have them now. So when someone receives a gift card for a massage that can be taken any time this year, the disciplined self takes over and commits to having the pleasure later. But tomorrow never comes, at least, according to a couple of experiments with undergraduates where ten of 32 people redeemed their three-week cake coupons but only two of 32 used their two-month pass. Similar behaviour is seen among residents in a tourist area, who are far less likely to go and see tourist attractions than visitors who have limited time. The reason is because people focus on future gains and don’t see future costs but, because they already see current costs, they put things off now.

Researchers use the word “hyperopia”, which describes the way people use excessive far-sightedness and keep on delaying pleasures while overweighing necessity and virtue in the present. In other words, they think the future will be great, so they don’t enjoy themselves today. However, they may regret hoarding their time or money later.

The message for retailers is to use promotions where there is a clear justification and the time to use them is limited. This ensures that people have a good reason to overcome their hyperopia and their inertia. Examples are a free pass on your birthday, charity benefits, and quickly expiring gift cards for accessories when someone has just bought some clothing. The advantage of gift cards is that people tend to buy something they wouldn’t normally buy and often add their own money to them. So it just goes to show, we’re not as greedy as we think.

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