Leadership Learning / Education Management / Strategy

Predicting the future? It’s easier than it sounds

So I’m reading a book called Superforecasting, by Philip Tetlock and Dan Gardner. It’s about the art and science of predicting the future — and make no mistake, there is an art and science here. It’s not all guesswork; seeing future events and disruptions is a skill that can be learned, as futurist and best-selling author Daniel Burrus has told us many times.

Anyway, toward the end of the book, the authors cite an article titled “Thoughts for the 2001 Quadrennial Defense Review,” written in April 2001 by Linton Wells, who at the time was principal staff assistant to President George W. Bush’s secretary and deputy secretary of defense. The article examines the state of the world at the beginning of each decade for the past 100 years, and how radically the world changed at the end of each of those decades. To wit:

  • In 1900, Great Britain was the world’s greatest power and France was its greatest enemy.
  • By 1910, Great Britain and France were allied against Germany.
  • By 1920, World War I was over, Germany had been defeated, and the United States and Japan had emerged as global powers.
  • By 1930, the Great Depression was under way and defense experts saw no wars on horizon.
  • By 1940, we were neck-deep in World War II.
  • By 1950, World War II was history, the Nazis had been deposed, and the atomic age was under way.
  • By 1960, it was the United States against the Communists, with everyone biting their nails over the “missile gap.”
  • By 1970, the height of Vietnam had come and gone and the United States was pursuing detente with the Soviet Union.
  • By 1980, the Soviets were the “evil empire” and the United States was ramping up for a new nuclear age.
  • By 1990, the Soviet Union was closing in on its demise, while the United States was struggling with recession and the warning signs of the first Gulf War.
  • By 2000, the Internet Age had dawned and the United States was basking in the glow of the most prosperous era it had enjoyed in decades.

“All of which is to say,” Wells concluded in April 2001, “that I’m not sure what 2010 will look like, but I’m sure that it will be very little like (what) we expect, so we should plan accordingly.”

Five months after Wells wrote that report, terrorists flew airplanes into the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, and our world was turned upside down. The following 10 years were marked by war, political and military unrest, and the most severe economic downturn since the Great Depression.

Wells’s conclusion is a lesson for us all. “If you have to plan for a future beyond the forecasting horizon,” Tetlock and Gardner write, “plan for surprise.”

Yes, as Burrus tells us, there are definite “hard trends” — things we know are going to happen — that can help shape our future view. If we take the time to identify those hard trends before they happen, we can position our organizations to take advantage of them before they arrive. That gives us a leg up on just about everybody.

On the other hand, stuff happens — stuff we can never predict. Those huge, life-altering events will throw us for a loop every time.

But the mere act of anticipation — of training ourselves to actively seek the unknown, to uncover the invisible, to see the future before it happens — can lessen the impact of those seismic, unforeseeable events.

In other words, keep scanning for those weak signals of disruptive change and plan accordingly. But also be aware that the best laid plans often go astray. Be prepared to roll with the changes.

“(T)he world we live in is one that emerged, quasi-randomly, from a vast population of once-possible worlds,” Tetlock and Gardner write. “The past did not have to unfold as it did, the present did not have to be what it is, and the future is wide open. History is a virtually infinite array of possibilities.”

That makes the task of anticipation — of identifying our hard trends and preparing our organizations to address them — more important than ever.

Those who learn how to do so will hold a decisive edge over those who do not.

Want to learn more? Check out The Anticipatory Organization, a revolutionary new learning system developed by Daniel Burrus in partnership with the MACPA and the Business Learning Institute. Get complete details here.


William D. Sheridan