How to predict the future with a stack of index cards, a few Sharpies, and these two lines.

We assembled a team of bright people with different backgrounds. We included insiders and outsiders. Our subject was residential yards, which we defined as the open spaces within the boundaries of the lot upon which the houses sit.

We began by establishing some simple working definitions we could all agree upon.

Residences we defined as free-standing single-family houses. Lots were the areas bounded on four sides by neighbors, fences, streets, and other things. Yards, smaller than lots, were pieces of open ground adjoining the houses. At no point were we trying to include all houses and all yards in our discussion. Instead, we wanted to develop a clear picture of phenomena common to yards in general.

We agreed on these things:

  • Front yards and back yards usually have different looks and serve different purposes.
  • The “typical” (we made a point of using this word instead of the always misleading “average”) front yard faces the street and has a lawn.
  • Both the front and back yards may be landscaped with trees, shrubs, and flower beds.
  • There may be side yards that connect the front yard to the back yard so the house is essentially an island in a sea of grass.
  • The back yard is usually the place where people play, eat, drink, and lounge about on a lawn, a patio, a deck, or all three.

Session leaders told team members they will be making some short notes on index cards and asked them to follow these simple rules:

  • Write only one thought per card.
  • Use only a few words.
  • Do so independently and without discussion.
  • Write down what pops into your head.
  • As you finish one, toss it face down in the middle and do another one.

We suggested they follow some simple guidelines:

  • Don’t go too fast or too slowly. We don’t want to get mired in detail, but we don’t want to go so fast it’s all a blur, either.
  • Don’t quit at the first pause. When your unconscious mind is done, give your conscious mind a chance to contribute, too.
  • Follow threads as they come to you but don’t beat them to death.
  • Don’t push too hard and don’t quit too soon – do some reaching but don’t strain yourself.
  • Don’t self-censor. You must never omit a thought because it’s too obvious, too simple, everybody knows that, someone else will do it.
  • Don’t get too detailed. Better to write a few key words that capture the essence of the idea than to draw it out. If the topic is pets, it’s okay to say dog, and okay to say beagle or whippet but not okay to list the names of every dog breed you know. It’s okay to say Lassie or Rin Tin Tin, but not to name all 101 Dalmatians.

Things in back yards.

We asked the team to identify the things we find in residential back yards and here are the index cards as we turned them over. For this article, we have eliminated the exact duplicates.

Trampoline, badminton, flower bed, swimming pool, croquet, herb garden, birdbath, basketball goal, grass, weeds, gas grille, mosquitos, fire pit, lawn, the dog, lawn chairs, scarecrow, pool, tool shed, trash cans, flamingo, gnome, bird bath, bird feeders, lemonade, kids, tomato plants, super soakers, swing set, tire swing, play house, tree house, toys, squirrels, benches.

Then we asked the team to group their data into clusters, using only a few simple guidelines.

How will we cluster things? By considering both similarities and differences. Clusters are defined by their shared characteristics, the things they have in common. They are also defined by being noticeably different than the other clusters. Statisticians do this mathematically with purpose-designed survey data. We do it by hand because we are working with words, not numbers. We also do it craft-style because our clustering decisions are negotiable and opinion-based. Everyone needs to agree with the team’s collective reasoning.

How many clusters will we need? There is no magic number. The real answer is as many as it takes to cover all the bases without leaving any huge holes. Most of the time, this is around 4, 5, or 6 clusters.

Standing up and moving around the table, the team sorted the index cards into clusters of things that seemed to go together. Cards would be added to a pile, taken away, moved to another pile, and so on. Encouraged to avoid bogging down, the team created a Miscellaneous group early on (lemonade, mosquitos, the dog, etc).

The next step was to think about what things were implied, suggested, connected to the things that made up each cluster.

One pile of index cards that easily defined itself included lawn, flower bed, herb garden, grass, weeds, tomato plants.

We could call this cluster flora or gardening or growing things, but regardless of the label, they get us thinking about other things. Right away, the group identified watering, trimming, potting, sowing, reaping, and mowing as activities related to “growing things.”

This deeper thinking led naturally to the kinds of tools, items, and machines we needed to water, trim, and mow. Our answers were hand clippers, string trimmers, shovels, rakes, pots, hoses, nozzles, insecticides, fertilizers, and so on.

Then we suggested marrying the data from our team exercise with big picture data.

Setting aside the index cards that got us started, we asked a larger question: What things have happened and are happening now that will affect every company in every industry that sells things people use in their backyards?

A broad historic overview tells us how right after WW2, the GIs came home, got married, and millions of families moved to the suburbs. The American Dream was a home, a yard, and a white picket fence. Fifty years later, the pendulum swung and people started moving back to the cities where they have no yards at all.

Two pieces of easily-accessible data from the public domain gave us some important facts.

Since 1950,

  • The size of the average house has doubled.
  • The size of the average lot has shrunk by 50%.

When we plot these two inversely related trend lines on a graph, we see the size of the yard is shrinking both absolutely and relatively. Lots are not only dramatically smaller, but an increasingly larger proportion of them are taken up by the house, leaving even less space for yards and the outdoor things we do in them.

All available evidence indicates this pinching down will continue, so:

As strategists for companies that sell products people use in their backyards, what can we do to take advantage of ever-smaller back yards?

  • Different products?
  • Smaller products?
  • Mini-badminton?
  • Smaller trimmers and mowers instead of larger devices?
  • Shorter hoses?

What could be simpler than using index cards and Sharpies? It’s a great team exercise when led by an expert. It works best when we marry our team-generated data with trend data.