Tom Webster, writing and speaking

Predicting The Future

Added on by Tom Webster.

387px-John_William_Waterhouse_-_The_Crystal_Ball.jpgI'm going to make a prediction: by now, you've read at least ten posts with "predictions for 2011." Maybe not the bravest stance, I'll warrant, but then again I'm not really big on writing "predictions" posts. That's not to say that I don't help my clients look into the future, using a mixture of research and insight, but the goal there is to make them right, or at least increase the odds of that happening. When I help clients navigate the future, I'm invested in their success - and part of that process is to quickly shift gears when new, potentially conflicting inputs enter into the equation. After all, my ultimate goal is not to be "right," it's to lead my clients to do the right thing, however we get there. I know a lot of people like to predict the future on their blogs, and that's their prerogative. I think being a "futurist" is a lot like being a poker player - you remember the big wins, and forget the "bad beats." The danger of writing predictions for 2011 and beyond is not that you might be wrong; rather, it's that you've set a mental filter for processing new information. We've all seen the blog posts from pundits that highlight some development as evidence supporting a previous prediction. "I told you this would happen," those posts either say overtly, or imply by their mere existence. The bolder the prediction, the less likely you will see evidence to the contrary pointed out by the same author.

When you go out on a limb and predict, publicly, that location-based services will decline in 2011 (for example), you set your reticular activating system (RAS) to locate and identify evidence that supports your prediction. You can't help it - even if you try. Your subconscious takes over, and turns information into evidence. You cling to the dogged belief that your prediction will eventually be correct, which might lead you to dismiss, overlook or subtly repudiate multiple inputs to the contrary as anecdotes, outliers or just plain "wrong." Eventually, we'd like to think that we can recognize when we were wrong about a prediction, and that we would all fess up to that effect once the tide had turned against it. When we have activated our RAS, however, we see that turn of the tide a wave too late.

This is why I rarely, if ever, commit to predictions here at BrandSavant, and I think if you went back over my posts from 2010 you'd agree. It's too hard to be clear about what is, given the glut of information with which we are bombarded daily, let alone be concerned with placing a singular bet on what will be. That doesn't mean I don't think (a lot) about the future, or work with clients to envision scenarios. Scenario design, in fact, is about the smartest thing you can do to plan for the future. Of course, writing a post that says "one of these three things, in increasing order of likelihood, is probably going to happen" is not quite as sexy as "Six Things That Will Happen In 2011," so we see a lot more of the latter post and precious few of the former. Scenario design, however, is the surest way to find value in every piece of information you encounter without judgement, and to avoid activating your RAS and mucking up your perception.

So, for 2011, try this - don't make predictions. Envision some possible scenarios, and plan for each. Assign probabilities for those scenarios. Then, as you assimilate, curate and interpret information, use that information to map back to those scenarios and hone your probabilities. As you hone those probabilities, you can begin to take actions with more and more surety.

Critics of this approach will point out the outliers - the case studies of the entrepreneurs who rolled it big, showed more vision than the market, and fully committed to their "predictions" with passion and decisive action. Never forget, however, that business mythology has an almost fatal survivor bias built in - we remember the big wins, and forget the bad beats. For every Amazon.com, there are 50 businesses like Pets.com and Boo.com that showed no less nerve, but committed to the wrong fork in the road. We love to talk about Target, but rarely celebrate Sears, which has this in common with Target - they're still here, which a host of equally passionate and committed retailers from Montgomery Ward to Sharper Image cannot claim.

Predictions are romantic. Scenarios are wishy-washy. But survivors get to write history. I predict you'll have some comments about this post, which I welcome below.