01 January 2012

Predicting the Future

"If you predict for a living you have to predict often." 

--Niels Bohr, Danish Physicist, and Nobel Prize Winner

Have you ever thought of yourself as a futurist?

Predicting the future is a lucrative profession even though the track record for peering beyond tomorrow is inconsistent at best.  Does anyone ever follow up on predictions anyway?

Predicting is hard 

Someone once asked futurist Alvin Toffler (of Future Shock and The Third Wave fame) why several of his predictions failed to materialize.  Toffler's response was direct:  "I often underestimated the power of the status quo."

You could count on one hand the number of individuals who credibly predicted the recent "Great Recession." 

"It is a globally accepted fact that top world governments, central banks, economists, investment bankers, and financial journalists were caught off guard by the financial crisis and the ensuing economic crisis of 2008-2009," according to the Economic Predictions website.

The IBM list

IBM recently issued its annual list of five predictions about the future of technology.   Bernie Meyerson, who does the technology forecast, said something worth noting when releasing the list.  "To predict the next five years you have to have a deep understanding of the last 50."   (This principle may hold true even for start-ups who are seeking to introduce innovative products and services).

One IBM prediction, in particular, caught our attention:
  • There will be no more passwords as increasingly powerful phones and sensors will store your personal biometric information enabling machines to automatically know who you say you are.
We can only hope.

Seizing the day

What about your organization?

1. The best way to predict the future is to invent it. 

This insight comes from Alan Kay, a scientist at Apple, Inc., whose charter is to pursue far-out ideas.  "This is a century in which you can be proactive, not reactive about the future."   While the future is not risk-free it's possible to calculate risks and minimize the downside of new ventures.

Why not start with the "what if" question?

2. Learn to connect the dots.

Take time to look around to see what's already underway.  The old idea of predicting from extrapolation, or the creation of new data points, is filled with uncertainty. 

New realities are likely in some stage of formation for most industries but are overlooked in the press of time.  Leadership tends to become aware of disruptions or opportunities when it's too late to take advantage of them.

3. Pay cautious attention to feedback.

Listening to employees, customers, and prospective customers is important when thinking about the future.  Be mindful that individuals sometimes want to be heard more than heeded.  Knowing the difference comes with experience, judgment, and being a good listener. 

Steve Jobs didn't do focus groups because participants were not likely to have any frame of reference for the products Apple was thinking about developing. 

Nonetheless, feedback is important. But filtering what is heard through the company's mission, values, and capabilities is a reliable way of reaching decisions on what to do with new information and insights.

4. Avoid the hype. 

This may be the hardest thing on the list to do.  There is a lot of "noise" coming from different directions requiring a fairly disciplined leader or manager to know what's worth pursuing and what's best left alone.

5. Stay flexible. 

"Flexibility" could be a core value of everyone's company.  Being able to adapt along the way is essential for an enduring future.

There is always the possibility of unforeseen problems with product launches, competitive forces, or new government regulations being imposed.  The ability to adjust to circumstances without having to toss your basic strategy is why success is more of a zig-zag than a straight line.

Thinking ahead

What's on your list of personal and corporate predictions for 2012 or beyond? 

What merits undivided attention? What can come off the radar?

What's the one thing in the coming year, that if properly understood and successfully implemented, could be your next profitable idea?

As we learned at the beginning of this post it's okay to revise predictions.  After all, this is what professional futurists do to stay in business.  As the late British philosopher, Carveth Read once said, "it is better to be vaguely right than exactly wrong."

Happy New Year!


(C) Bredholt & Co.