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“Past performance is no guarantee of future returns.”
Ever seen that disclaimer on an investment ad? Despite this standard warning, history is often used as a weapon with which to fight arguments about the future. “It has never happened like that before so why should this time be any different?”
I’m all for a level of conservatism: every prediction (and particularly those with the most hype around them) should be subject to challenge and question. But as the Cambridge historian David Runciman says, “history is a poor guide”. Now is different to then. And tomorrow? Well, tomorrow could be anything.
The question is, how different do we want tomorrow to be? And how fast do we want the change to come?
The one lesson I do think we can take from history — and that has direct parallels in my original discipline, engineering — is that rapid change is often less stable change. When the pendulum swings too far, too fast, the resulting correction is often pretty violent as well.
This is in part why democracy has been so successful: it promotes a relatively slow and steady pace of change with regular swings back and forth. Two steps forward, one step back, but ultimately towards a healthier, wealthier population.
The ideal would perhaps be consistent slow steps forward. But how do we achieve this?
Democracy maintains slow progress because of the competition between two distinct ideologies. One government may reverse some of the steps of the predecessor and vice versa. But in business we should be able to avoid this oscillation.
Futurism — strategic planning in general — needs to be conducted at two speeds, or rather focused on two distinct intervals.
There is the long term, potentially a 25–30 year vision: what do we want to be, to see, to deliver? How do we believe our ability to deliver that vision will be affected by the influence of macro factors?
Then there is the near term: inside the agreed framework of our vision, how will we be affected in the next 2–5 years by macro factors? What will have the greatest impact — positive or negative — and how do we respond?
In the immediate term, there is a process of constant innovation, driven by the near-term challenges and opportunities identified. In theory we should be able to maintain most of the changes of direction within this process through experimentation and testing. Occasionally the whole company will need radical change. But if this innovation process is run consistently, and at sufficient scale, it should be possible to minimise these dramatic changes of direction.
Should and do
Of course, few people or companies operate like this. Change programmes are generally undertaken when there is a clear external motivation: falling profits or market share, mergers and acquisitions. It is hard to devote a sufficient proportion of our time and effort to changing the business. I’ve rarely met a small business owner, large company MD, or frankly a CEO, who didn’t want to spend more time ‘on’ the business and less time ‘in’ it.
But somehow we must.
Spontaneous gifts are perhaps the best of all. A few weeks back, my friend and former colleague Adrian Bentley of Just Good Ideas gave me a book he had stumbled across. Produced by TechTV, the Catalog of Tomorrow is a more grown-up Book of the Future (the 1979 version), bringing together predictions from a range of experts across a variety of fields. Published 15 years ago, the predictions it contains feel ripe for revisiting.
The book features a foreword by Paul Saffo, an expert in forecasting who teaches at both Stanford and Singularity University. In just a few hundred words, Saffo offers some of the smartest statements about futurism and forecasting that I have yet to read. For a start, he points out that forecasts will almost always be wrong, for if it were otherwise, we would all be bystanders, watching a pre-determined path unfold. Rather, we are active participants in shaping our future. The purpose of futurism is not always to say what will be, but to show what can be. To light the paths, not fix the route.
Saffo also points out that even those who have been famously wrong in their predictions have gone on to profit from the unfolding reality. Tom Watson of IBM, who predicted a market for just a handful of computers, is a notable example.
The point is that we should not be afraid of making forecasts. Nor should we be afraid of being wrong — try though we might to be right.
Saffo also refers to another issue to which I often point: predicting ‘what’ is generally easier than predicting ‘when’. As he puts it, ‘most ideas take 20 years to become an overnight success’. The direction of travel can be absolutely clear, but the speed of the journey is determined by many variables: legal, societal, technical and more.
My first experience of this was five years ago, when on BBC 5live on New Year’s Day I predicted that there would be a consumer-grade 3D printer on the high street for under £300 by the end of 2013. I was wrong — it took a couple more years.
In fact, I have only around a 50% hit rate from the predictions from that show. I don’t think any of the predictions are wrong, but half are yet to come true:
I predicted commercial applications by end of 2013. That’s technically correct but this really hasn’t taken off in a big way yet.
I thought we’d be charging our phones weekly, not daily by now. Battery tech has improved but not to the point that it can feed our power-hungry devices for more than a day at a time.
I predicted more wirelessly connected gadgets starting to take over some of the functions of the phone. Again, I think I’m technically correct here, but beyond headphones and fitness trackers, this is yet to be a major trend.
Ultra High Definition
I proposed that 4K would succeed where 3D failed. Nailed that one at least.
I predicted the expansion of fitness trackers out into other connected health sensors. This isn’t totally mainstream yet but loads of people have sleep monitors and blood oximetry sensors, so I’m counting this one as a win.
I suggested that in 2013 we would start to take electric cars seriously. Yesterday I found out that second hand hybrids and EVs are selling for more than their original purchase price. So yeah, I’ll claim that one.
Predictions are fun. But they are a tool. A way to make people think about what might be.
Make some predictions of your own. You might not get them all right, but in the process of making them, you’ll probably think harder about the future than you have in a while.
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