Predicting the Future

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As Ania G. Wieckowskiwrites in the November-December 2018 Harvard Business Review,leaders have always been eager to see into the future.

They want to know what will delight customers in six months, a year, or two decades from now. They seek to find out what external factors will influence their industries and what technologies will upset them.   Uncertainty, complexity, volatility, and their own cognitive biases, often foil these attempts to take the long view.

Science writer Steven Johnson says, that’s why we all need to remain vigilant in rationally calculating the future effects of big choices.  In Farsighted: How We Make the Decisions That Matter the Most,Johnson reminds us that “the ability to make deliberative, long-term decisions is one of the few truly unique characteristics of Homo sapiens.” And it appears we’re actually getting better at it.

Take scenario planning. The power of this common tool lies in the discipline with which it forces us to explore uncharted territory. For example, we can counteract the “fallacy of extrapolation”—a bias that causes us to assume that a current trend will continue into the future—by imagining in detail multiple ways a situation might unfold.  Johnson suggests examining at least one model that is particularly optimistic, one that is particularly conservative, and one that is just plain odd. The exercise is not about predicting the future; it’s “a rehearsal” for it.

A rule of thumb for predicting is that the more inputs you have, the better. Research by Wharton professor Philip Tetlockshows that people who consider multiple points of view make better predictions than those who hew to one perspective.  Johnson concurs, recommending that decision-makers cultivate diverse voices to avoid blind spots, using small-group activities to allow those voices to be heard.

Varied points of view can lead to friction, but that’s to be encouraged.  In Imagine It Forward: Courage, Creativity, and the Power of Change,former GE executive Beth Comstock coined the term “sparks” to describe outsiders who challenge the team to think differently.  She notes that for corporate incumbents like GE, the problem of predicting the future is...

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