What we do wrong when we try to predict the future


In 1988, Kodak, the major motion picture company at the time, hired Faith Popcorn to talk to them about the future of cinema. Backed by research and over a decade (at the time) of experience with BrainReserve, her marketing consultancy, she told Kodak that the future of film would be digital. But Kodak’s vision was narrowed by success and specificity. “That’s not what we asked of you,” the team told Popcorn. “We wanted to know the future of movie.” They abruptly showed him the door.

Faith Popcorn is a futurist, a specialist who uses a wide range of signals, trends, forecasts and other patterns to project plausible outcomes for the future. Companies often call on these experts to help them develop long-term strategies and prepare for the changes that are on the horizon. For most people, trying to see into the future is like trying to peer into a street corner: you won’t know what it looks like until you’re there. However, there are practices that futurists use – and that you can develop – that will improve your accuracy in understanding what the future is likely to bring and enable you to move with agility once it arrives.

Three prominent futurists and thought leaders – Amy Webb, Faith Popcorn and Rita McGrath – offer a three-step process to help avoid the pitfalls many encounter when trying to plan for the future and develop a set of strategies to act in a variety of scenarios.

Don’t study your industry. Broaden your perspective

Most future trend reports are industry oriented: Top Ten Trends in Fintech, Top Ten Trends in Healthcare, etc. It is a mistake.

Amy Webb is the founder of the Future Today Institute, a Thinkers50 2021 Leading Management Thinker, and the author of the recently published book on the future implications of synthetic biology, The Genesis machineand. She teaches an MBA course on Strategic Foresight and Future Forecasting at NYU Stern School of Business. His Quantitative Futurism method uses data to model possible and feasible future scenarios and develop strategies around them.

His approach begins by drawing a “marginal map” of developing trends that might be of interest to you. In doing so, she advises organizations to broaden their perspectives. “When people think about the future, they tend to focus on one thing,” she explains. “For example, if they’re trying to understand the future of cars, they really need to think about the future of mobility. If they only consider the future of cars, it limits us to a future where we only have cars.

Like Popcorn’s visit to Kodak in the 1980s, you can see that sticking tightly to a narrow definition of your industry can be disastrous. By expanding your openness, you open up a range of possible scenarios and likely future concepts. This will help you hone in on a variety of strategies to have in your back pocket.

Rita McGrath is a global expert in innovation and business growth strategy, well known for her ability to help businesses”see in the cornersto avoid disruptions. She suggests that, To help you assess which of the major cross-industry trends matter most, you need to detail your assumptions and develop ways to test them quickly and inexpensively:

With more data, you can then proceed to the next step. It’s about dividing your monolithic plans into addressable checkpoints, retrieving the results of your experiments, and rescheduling. It’s magic.

Based on your insights, data, and ongoing questions, you begin to separate the signals from the noise, identifying potential trends to pay attention to, which allows you to begin formulating your plans.

Don’t talk to the experts. Explore the edges

Futurism is not just about spotting trends. New technologies do not determine the future. Instead, futurists start with trends to start identifying Notions and Language around these technologies. For example, the idea of ​​a taxi service was not new, but Uber’s concept of coordinating passengers and uncoordinated drivers revolutionized ridesharing. Soon after, we started hearing about the “uberization” of industries.

McGrath suggests that big changes start to show up at the periphery of organizations and markets, where you’ll learn about emerging customer issues, the ways those issues are being addressed, and diverse perspectives.

To contact these edges, McGrath recommends finding your “helpful Cassendra,” as the late Intel CEO Andy Grove would say. She explains:

They are people who are often unable to make decisions, but who have a deep understanding of changing phenomena. Listen to them. More importantly, take a regular break from the everyday to observe how weak signals of future changes develop. Many things are knowable, but not if you are not careful.

Addressing not only formal experts, but also fringe, problem-solving people, will require stepping out of your comfort zone and your bubble of personal network or experiences. Organizations can facilitate this by empowering small agile teams and encouraging employees to come up with uncomfortable or contradictory ideas.

The three women agree on spotting trends on the margins of society and organizations. Popcorn’s BrainReserve is built on the insights of 10,000 visionaries and future thinkers from every industry. Quantitatively futuristic, Webb’s approach uses a team to develop a “marginal map” of signals of change in technology and society.

Don’t build a timeline. Backcast instead

Popcorn shared the #1 mistake people make when trying to predict the future in an interview:

I think the biggest mistake people make. . . tries to extrapolate what will happen from what has happened in the past. This is a major mistake. The way to understand the future and become a futurist overnight is to look ahead.

When you try to predict the future based on what is happening now, you limit the scope of your imagination to the businesses, thoughts, and trends already in play today. This leaves little room for new standards, technologies and ideas that are sure to develop over time. Popcorn suggests taking the opposite approach using a technique called backcasting: look ahead 10 or 20 years, visualize an imaginary future for your industry, then create a timeline roadmap of what it will take to get there.

Webb and many other futurists also use backcasting to work backwards from an imaginary future state. However, she warns against the temptation to set deadlines. Webb supports the need to think outside of the typical one-, three-, or five-year strategic planning horizons, as the evolution of our industry will be influenced by multiple technologies and concepts that will evolve at different rates. It is not difficult to predict the future in one or more decades. But when the milestones of that future will appear is difficult to predict. Trying to follow a rigid linear schedule makes organizations vulnerable to disruption.

The ancient Greeks used two different terms to describe time. The one we know best, chronos, refers to sequential (or “chronological”) time. Their second word, kairos, refers to time as being marked by the opportune moment to act. Chronos is quantitative; kairos is qualitative. Chronos seeks to tell you the date and year when something is going to happen. Kairos seeks to tell you under what conditions something is going to happen.

Effective backcasting requires kairos, which goes against traditional planning methods.

McGrath offers a convenient way to plan without a deadline. After identifying the critical trends you want to track (Step 2), define the critical indicators that determine if a trend is changing things. For example, “when the cost of solar energy drops to less than 10% of fossil fuels” and “when insurance claims for floods and wildfires increase by 30”, we will see an acceleration of the widespread adoption of alternative energies. This moment is not defined by a date but by a state.

Kodak (and others) realized that the methods of skilled futurists were becoming increasingly critical as businesses in all industries faced unprecedented speeds of change. In the past, disruptions were sporadic: an organization achieved economies of scale, found a strategy that worked, and relied on that same strategy for years with minimal adjustments.

Today, the future is accelerating faster and causing mass chaos. This requires a different approach. By expanding your perspective beyond your industry, exploring the boundaries of the areas you explore, and looking back without a timeline, you will begin to think like a futurist. You will be more adept at anticipating disruption and will be ready to thrive in an uncertain world.


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