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  • 03.21.11

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:

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  • 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.

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About the author

Daniel W. Rasmus, the author of Listening to the Future, is a strategist who helps clients put their future in context.

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