How to Be Your Own Futurist

Advice from Watts Wacker on how to stay ahead of the curve.

Watts Wacker gets paid to have a point of view about the future — which is a pretty good job description for all business leaders these days. We asked Wacker how everyone can develop their capacity to stay ahead of the curve. Here’s his advice:


1. Learn to be a better listener. “You don’t learn when you’re talking. You learn only when you’re listening. One of the benefits of observational research is that it sharpens my listening skills. I don’t expect people to do what I do, but everyone can listen better.”

“I remember sitting with the brand group at Kraft Foods, asking whether they’d done their ‘store checks’ — their opportunity to listen to customers. Everyone’s hand went up. Then I asked when they’d done them. Everyone had done them in the morning, when kids are at school! By 3 PM, when kids are in the stores, these guys were out on the golf course. That’s not how to listen.”

2. Once a week, read a trade magazine from a different industry. “Let’s say I’m working with a bunch of computer executives. Once a week for six weeks, I’ll send them a different trade magazine — ‘Progressive Grocer,’ ‘Automotive News,’ something from the corrugated-box industry, a jewelry magazine. Their assignment is to find two things in every issue that relate to their business or provoke their thinking. Everyone comes in with at least ten. It’s a remarkably broadening exercise.”

3. Let your kids tutor you in a subject they know more about than you do. “It’s a wonderful exercise in humility. You begin to appreciate that you don’t have all the answers, and that it’s worth listening to people you never thought could teach you anything. I’ve done this myself. Here I am, ‘Mr. Social Scientist,’ and it was my son who taught me there are eight distinct social sciences: anthropology, archaeology, economics, geography, history, political science, psychology, sociology. As a result, I decided to become more learned in geography and archaeology. In fact, I’m going on a dig in Ethiopia.”

4. Volunteer. “In most volunteer activities, everybody is the same. You are equal, not superior. Volunteering strips away the power you enjoy at work. It changes your perspective on hierarchy and authority.”

5. Read what has stood the test of time. “Read Aristotle, Shakespeare, Adam Smith, The Federalist Papers. I was in Austria last week. My client brought me to the grave of Leopold the First. He died almost 300 years ago, and people still put fresh flowers on his grave. Isn’t that the impact you want to have on your company? Reading the great books helps frame that kind of thinking.”