In a relatively recent LinkedIn post, my friend and colleague Kirsten Lewis asked “Where are the thoughtful and creative product thinkers today?” In my view, they’re working at the intersection of insights across disciplines within innovation hubs. These teams typically include researchers who are driving strategic exploratory research and creative methods, designers who configure and iterate unique imaginings of product possibilities, engineers who detail the practicalities of those possibilities, marketers who determine how they might be positioned, data scientists on how they might scale, and so on. Ideally, this collaboration also takes into account the web of interactions within the systems where product is embedded—what we might call an ecological view. It’s holistic, systemic, and contextual. 

But what about the role of research more specifically? Creative and thoughtful research should ideally contribute to the collaborative process above by going beyond understanding current user/customer needs and stepping back to reflect on how historical and current contexts shape the range of product possibilities into the future—what I would call an evolutionary view. While both an ecological and evolutionary view are critical for informing product innovation, the latter is where I’d like to focus in this post, because it provides the foundation for both thoughtful and creative research as well as the opportunity for anthropological insight to inform the opportunity discovery process. 

Enter Pathfinding

Pathfinding research is a practice that identifies emerging needs and works backwards to develop products that fit, or can adapt toward, those needs. The pathfinding process typically begins with a mix of foundational, foresight, exploratory, secondary, and strategic research. Methods often include scanning for signals of change by investigating new products with growing appeal, immersion within influential niche communities, working closely with subject matter experts, listening critically to visionaries, conducting deep dives into marketplace shifts, targeted research with key segments, and other approaches. Depending on the project and the research approach, pathfinders will use an array of these and other methods. But, regardless of methodological mix, pathfinding typically requires synthesizing disparate data streams, keen pattern identification, cross-pollinating insights between different domains, and systems thinking. While many of these skills are well aligned with the strategic value of ethnographic praxis I highlight in Ethnographic Thinking, pathfinding doesn’t necessarily require enlisting social science directly. However, in this post I’d like to advocate strongly for a form of pathfinding that draws more explicitly from anthropology.

Evolutionary Pathfinding

Perhaps the most common assumption about pathfinding is that it’s about predicting the future. It’s not. And it’s especially untrue for what I’ve come to refer to as evolutionary pathfinding. Instead of chasing trends, evolutionary pathfinding focuses on understanding what’s changing through the lens of human inertia. The goal is to think beyond the current moment and aim toward lasting value and long term market advantage by building meaningful, compelling, and enduring products. This is done by identifying opportunity spaces within a trajectory of shifts from the past, to the present, and on to patterns we see among emerging signals on the horizon. Let’s look more closely at how this is accomplished and the ways that anthropology can inform it.

First, within evolutionary pathfinding, patterns of emerging signals are only considered significant indicators when they can be substantiated by cultural and/or behavioral drivers that have been proven to have clear lasting cultural impact. Pointing toward a handful of signals that happen to align with an organization’s strategic priorities (or stakeholder personal preferences) won’t cut it. In order to defend an opportunity area worthy of investment, strong substantiation of patterns of signals is critical; and it needs to come from broader social and cultural contexts.

For example, in one recent project I led, we were seeing increasing numbers of young people gravitate toward non-traditional skill-building—and away from traditional education programs. While not a majority, we knew that these were significant signals of change because our research into the broader cultural contexts of this market revealed a long history of under-funded and out-of-touch educational institutions and curricula. The pattern we identified was substantiated by these drivers that occurred (and were occurring) over the course of time in this market.

Second, patterns of emerging signals (and the drivers that catalyze them), should collectively demonstrate some alignment with at least one core human universal need that transcends things like historical or cultural specificity—things like creativity, connection, or protection. This provides some indication that they have lasting value. For example, in another project, when we started to see increased interest in crypto and fintech innovation (pattern of signals) within a market that showed clear historical and ongoing mistrust toward financial institutions (drivers), we were eventually able to situate an opportunity for new products anchored within a deeper need for fair exchange, subsistence, and asset protection.

It’s important to note that the approach to pathfinding I’m outlining here views politically-laden advocacy and utopian visions of ‘the future’ with a high degree of suspicion, since they’re largely modes of thinking intentionally designed to enact influence on shifts in cultural or behavioral phenomena over time. Their intention is to re-shape trajectories, rather than observe how they’re evolving organically. In this sense, evolutionary pathfinding is more about what doesn’t change than trying to predict what will change. 

With this foundation, we can begin to entertain more specific questions about the cadence of evolutionary change and how it influences areas of opportunity. Here, we can borrow from the concept of punctuated equilibrium to help us understand the difference between shifts that reflect incremental change, and those that are a response to high-impact social disruption. 

So, in addition to understanding cultural and/or behavioral shifts and their relevance, we should also be investigating critical cultural moments that have highly symbolic or material influence with the potential to trigger a cascade of rapid and broad-sweeping change. Recent examples of such ‘tremors’ include the spread of COVID-19 or George Floyd’s death, and the social impact of both (feelings of isolation and subsequent impact on mental health, rise of social justice movements and increasing political polarization, etc.). These are the punctuations in our social world that shake up the more common and incremental states of equilibrium. They don’t necessarily need to be the focus of pathfinding, but we should be sure to integrate their power to accelerate social or behavioral change, and in what ways.

Some Final Thoughts

When an org starts to prioritize thinking about where to invest next, it’s easy to get lost in trends or run toward the sexiest shiniest new thing. However, strategically selecting opportunity areas shouldn’t occur outside the cultural, historical, and evolutionary contexts that shape them—paired with deep thought about how they do (or don’t) align with an org’s range of current and potential capabilities. 

What evolutional pathfinding does particularly well in this context is remind us of three important things that can help orgs prioritize where to place future bets: 

  • Humans evolve slowly, but adapt rapidly to local conditions. 
  • Our behavior is rooted in evolutionary fitness, which favors collective survival (even if some traits may not be currently relevant). 
  • Accelerations in technology do not accelerate human evolution.

In short, an evolutionary approach to pathfinding helps us understand the collective pathways of our species to see how they condition future possibilities for tapping lasting human needs and values.