Making it easier to predict the future in business

In our last post we reviewed the accuracy of some future workplace predictions from 1995. This time we’re considering the difficulty of prediction (and its futility?). Why is it important to plan for the seemingly unpredictable, and how can we make it easier?

Predicting the future is hard

It is almost compulsory to start any comment on forecasting with the wry witticism that “prediction is very difficult, especially about the future”. This tongue-in-cheek comment is usually attributed to the quantum physicist Niels Bohr.

As we saw in the last blog, he wasn’t wrong. Our lives are littered with examples, from the mundane (the 3.10 at Haydock) to the important (the inability of pollsters and other pundits to gauge voter intent in the last few British elections and referenda), of our inability to accurately predict the future, even a future about which we might have some knowledge and insight. The Canadian economist J.K. Galbraith is famously supposed to have pointed out that “There are two kinds of forecasters: those who don’t know and those who don’t know they don’t know”.

The perils of being indecisive

When we can’t, or won’t, predict, our world gums up. We become indecisive; we postpone decisions because we are less certain about how they might play out. We wait for more certainty – which often doesn’t come. For most organisations this is incredibly risky, because it means not changing in a world which is changing around them, and then having to react quickly to something that has happened. Our national angst of the past three years over Brexit has had this effect on many UK organisations, who would rather wait for the certainty of the outcome than take a step into the dark. For many that has unfortunately resulted in incidental expense on contingency planning as vastly-different short-term futures have emerged, with little national guidance (although plenty of political bombast) about what might, or might not, happen.

Brexit is just one example of how it is probably harder now than it has ever been to not only anticipate the future, but even to make sense of the present. This is, to be fair, not a feeling unique to our age. The despair of the inter-war period was beautifully summed up by the French poet Paul Valery in 1937: “L’avenir est comme le reste: il n’est plus ce qu’il était” (“the future, like everything else, is no longer quite what it used to be”). But it is a feeling that might be accentuated by the sheer volume of possible futures which confront us.

Some people are better at predictions

How can organisations thrive in this world? Can we learn better predictive techniques, can we acquire competence in this field? Well, we probably can’t get to perfect, but we might be able to get to good. And strangely, the way to do this may NOT be to be so hung up on precise predictions of a singular future, but to be a lot more curious about the many ways in which the world may change and develop.

There is no doubt that some people are better at predictions than the rest of us. What research exists seems to suggest that people who are good at pattern recognition, who can recognise and address their own biases, and who work with hypotheses rather than beliefs are likely to be better at making sense of the emerging future. But most of us are not like this, we are riddled with belief, preconceptions, and blind spots. J.M Keynes’s remark that “When the facts change, I change my mind. What do you do?” is not one that most us could, in all honesty, utter. The bad news for many of us is that the possession of greater intelligence is highly correlated with the possession of greater confirmation bias, which predisposes many clever people to be occasionally dumb about the future (“well hello, David Cameron”).

The key personal attribute, I belief, in making sense of the future is having a curious nature. It is being intrigued by how the driving forces work, how they might change, how new forces might emerge…….

Approaches to dealing with the future

The good news is that we are, whether we want to or not, constantly thinking about the future. The Swedish neurobiologist David Ingvar discovered, in the 1980s, that the human brain is constantly attempting to make sense of the future by making plans for it. This doesn’t mean we are predicting the future – but rather anticipating something that is likely to happen (“if I don’t get the job I interviewed for yesterday”) and developing a plan of action for when it happens (“I’ll leave my current job anyway”). Every time we think about a future we can anticipate, we build a plan for it. We don’t calculate probabilities; we don’t determine a single view of the future – we just develop action plans and store them against the day we might need them.

This seems altogether more promising than trying to predict a singular future, building big plans around that prediction, and then watching something else quite different happen. The world, as Prince Andrew has just discovered, can change very quickly and make a mockery of our plans.

One approach to dealing with the future that builds on the work of Ingvar is scenario planning. It is a discipline that does not shy away from trying to predict possible futures, but one that is altogether more sanguine about their multiplicity, and about our need to understand what we can, might and should, do if and when such a future comes to pass. Its focus is on the plan and remembering it, rather than on the purity of the prediction.

Practical guidance for future planning

We will return to scenario planning in more detail in a future blog. Given the season though, and the impending election, the start of a New Year, and the climate crisis, it seems more timely to first look at another kind of approach to the future – one in which we inspire our WILL and INTENT to create a future within the realms of our capacity as individuals, teams, and communities.

So, in our next more practically focused blog we will show you how to get your team engaged in creating or rejuvenating your shared, aspirational vision. This will give you the means to define one part of the future that you can bring into being next year. What that bit of the future is, is up to you – it could be some financial milestone; it could be addressing how to become carbon neutral as a business, or how to turn the climate crisis into an opportunity. Make sure you start the year with some intention of heading in the right direction, whatever else the future holds.

Richard Copley is a transformation, programme, project, change and operations manager. A large part of his career has been with three international IT/business companies.

His main interests are in making strategy executable, and helping organisations gain strong alignment between their operations and their strategy. His consultancy work majors on strategy, operating models, and enterprise architecture.

His transformation and programme management work focuses on shaping and executing feasible pieces of work that take organisations through the change they want and need. Both types of work demand strong facilitation skills, and over the last 15 years Richard has used visual thinking in a number of different areas to support his work, but always to develop meaning, sense and commitment quickly for large and disparate teams, bodies and organisations.

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