How You Think About the Future Is Dangerous

People plan under uncertainty by putting on blinders. That is personally dangerous and it is also dangerous for the organizations they work for. Scenario planning can provide organizations with a robust means of reasoning about uncertainty by seeing how ideas play out under different social, technological, environment, economic, and political backdrops.

Within a few minutes of a lecture, a presentation or a consulting engagement, I ask the people working with me a question. This question is domain specific:

  • What will the dominate form of employment be in a decade?
  • How will we bank ten years from now?
  • What will meetings look like in ten years?
  • In 2021, what talent shortages will the U.S. be facing?

I then display the very stern picture of a prototypical boss, looking down in future-judgment on each person—followed by the image of floating question marks descending rapidly into certainty. I explain that I'm showing them what goes on in their mind when a question like this is posed. Because they are smart—because they are expected to know—they attempt to answer an unanswerable question. The right answer, I tell them, is: I don't know, but here's how I'm thinking about it.

Plans based on the illusion of certainty is dangerous.

Human knowledge of the future is extremely limited. The most successful soothsayers may be more lucky than right, and eventually any luck will run out, even for the most seeming prescient among us. And even visionaries seem less visionary when individual quotes are examined, like Bill Gates saying "640K ought to be enough for anyone," or the late chairman of Digital Equipment, Ken Olson, wondering why anyone would want a computer at home. From the tanking of the housing market, to uprisings in the Middle East, to the Japanese earthquake and tsunami, to the Gulf Oil spill, we find companies and governments caught by surprise when the unthinkable happens.

The people and organizations that adapt best to change, and that is really the trick: anticipation and adaptation, do so by honestly admitting what they don't know, watching developments carefully, planning for multiple eventualities and jumping on the right horse minutes, or days, even weeks or months ahead of their flatfooted competitors.

Most people are content with their myopic illusion that if they will it hard enough, tomorrow will be much like today. They think: I account for the little anomalies, my predictions are going to turn out to be right. Those are the very definitions of delusional thinking. I don't mean that in a derogatory sense because this delusion is built into the human psyche. It is a protective mechanism. However, it is a mechanism that fails when the span of time shifts from where is the next meal coming from? to what will the African economy look like in 2021?

In this blog we will explore the unthinkable through the lens of scenario planning. We will examine uncertainties in detail and discover how they play out under different social, technology, economic, environmental and political situations. We may not be able to foretell the future, but we can force ourselves to confront the often uncomfortable recesses of the possible and imagine what might be. I intend to help my readers stay ahead of the curve by breaking them of their habit of planning for THE future, and helping them plan for ANY future.

Over the next weeks and months I will be writing about the biggest uncertainties we face, from my own store of uncertainties and from those suggested by readers. Over the course of time I will develop a set of scenarios unique to this Fast Company blog. Through those scenarios we can explore how concepts, ideas, products and services behave, adapt, change or die, under different realities.

I look forward to your engagement.

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2 Comments

  • David Kaiser, PhD

    Incremental change is easier to imagine. I suspect that houses and cars will be fairly similar in ten years to what they are today, with some noteworthy accounting for things like electric cars, hybrids, smart-houses, etc. (AND I could be totally wrong!) The trick is revolutionary change. Few ever see it coming, like the fall of the Berlin wall, the Arab uprisings, digital cameras knocking out film, the internet, etc. THe best we can ever do is guess.

    David Kaiser, PhD.
    Time Management Coach for authentic Leaders
    www.DarkMatterConsulting.com

  • Lou S. Cannon

    This seems like a sound approach, although many leaders prefer doubtsourcing (letting Other People worry about consequences). Or, to wax poetic for a moment:

    CEO pep talk
    We're all in this together
    Straps on parachute.