How Companies Can Think Like Hunters, Rather Than Farmers

By Scott Kirsner |  September 9, 2016

Author and Trend Hunter founder Jeremy Gutsche has a helpful label for the two mindsets that exist in most big organizations: farmers and hunters. The farming mindset is about planting and taking care of the crops, doing basically the same thing this season as you did last season, and hoping the weather works in your favor. Farmers stay on one piece of land, maybe occasionally adding a few extra acres when they’ve had a good year.

“Obviously, there’s farming that needs to happen in every business, because you have a product, so you need to optimize and keep on making profit,” Gutsche says.

Hunters, on the other hand, are all about heading into new territory, discovering new things, and adapting to the environment there. Hunters realize they don’t have much control of external circumstances, so they develop skills to deal with constant change.

We spoke with Gutsche earlier this week. He’s the author of the 2015 book “Better and Faster: The Proven Path to Unstoppable Ideas,” was previously a Director of Competitive Strategy & Innovation at Capital One Canada, and he is among the speakers at the Innovation by Design Summit later this month in St. Louis.

I talk about the hunter and the farmer. When we’re farming, we assume that we have more control than we think.

From the outside, I can tell you and you can tell me what’s disrupting almost every industry. If I take an example like media, a little more than a decade ago, people used to look up what movie they wanted to see in the newspaper. Then they called the theater for availability. They went beep, beep, beep through the touchtone stuff to find out when the movie time was playing.

Then they’d have to phone their buddies and leave a message on their answering machine to try to figure out if they maybe would be able to get there. They’d show up in the movie theater and use a paper map to get there. Then the movie theater when they get there is actually sold out.

I just listed for you 10 actions that don’t happen anymore. Now, you pull on your phone, look at Rotten Tomatoes, check out the review, book the ticket, text your friends all at once. Invite more friends because it was so easy. Use a GPS to get the theater and you have your seat because you booked in advance. Or guess what? Maybe you just stream the whole thing. That’s happened in a decade.

Let’s imagine 10 years from now. There’s augmented reality, virtual reality, video games are going to merge with TV, and there’s going to be holograms. I can say these forecasts easily, because I don’t have to commit to it, because it’s 10 years out, which seems like the very distant future.

All of those [technologies] exist now. If I look at what happened in the last decade and how mind-blowing that is, I can sober up to the reality that what I think is a decade away is probably five years away.

That’s an example of an exercise that I’ve done with CEOs of five of the top media companies in the world, to try and train them and their teams on how to realize that things like streaming or interactive media are coming sooner than they think.

It’s interesting, because when you work with them, at first there’s a little bit of resistance, because even though they’re the brightest people in that world, it’s easy to get caught up on extrapolating the status quo, assuming that what happened this year will happen next year and the year after.

It’s very difficult for people to think about five years out because we have this tendency to farm.

Desperation and Paranoia can Create Hunters

The opposite of those traits is a hunter — a person who is curious, insatiable, and willing to destroy, which means to destroy egos and [assumptions about businesses that exist today.]

The reality is that all of us exhibit both tendencies, but you have a likelihood to be more in the farming mentality in any company that is working and being successful. You find that 80 percent of companies are farming in almost every way.

The ones that are at the bottom 20 percent [of an industry] that feel like they’re going to collapse, that’s when they start looking out, when it’s out of desperation. Or there’s a small group of the top one percent of companies, where they are just so paranoid of not being number one.

That they do absolutely everything to try to push themselves and stay ahead, and out of fear, they’re motivated. Generally, as long as things are going well, people tend to think that the status quo will continue. But it can’t for everybody.

People Always Think There’s a Centralized Team

There are assessments on innovation that we get people to fill out. It’s funny. There’s a question we ask that’s like is innovation a central group, decentralized, or what is it like in your company? The reason we ask it is because it’s always interesting because companies that have a central innovation team, a whole bunch of people will know about it.

Others that don’t have a central innovation team will still think there’s a central team that looks after it. I think the irony is that it’s actually important for everyone to have some portion of their time devoted to innovation.

When you talk about “innovation theater,” there’s a benefit to something like a quarterly innovation day or the monthly meeting or the little award or whatever it is that’s acknowledging people for trying new things, because that’s what enables the individual in the company to realize, “Oh, I can do stuff too. I can be part of it.”

I think it’s important to be broadcasting out the openness for new ideas and adaptations, because I don’t think many companies do. Otherwise, people go back to doing their regular job of whatever puts food on the table… I like to think is that innovation is everyone’s responsibility, and a little bit of everyone’s time needs to be spent trying to think about how to adapt, how to improve themselves — whether that’s sharpening their skills, looking outwards, thinking of new ideas, etc.