Stop Trying to Predict the Future; Just Ask “What if?”

April 11, 2017

The Future Exit SignI’ve written many times about the challenges we all face trying to predict the future. Just last week I offered “Seven Principles for Taking Charge of Your Future.” None of them involves predicting anything.

I gave up making predictions many years ago.

In the immortal words at that great American philosopher, Yogi Berra,

It’s hard to make predictions, especially about the future.

[A quick Google search suggests that Nobel-prize-winning physicist Neils Bohr may have said that first, but it’s more fun attributing it to Yogi Berra]

I prefer to approach the inherent uncertainties about the future with a radically different mindset.

I think first in terms of possibilities, and only after we’ve considered a broad range of possibilities do I encourage even considering probabilities.

Any time you are focusing on the future, the most important question – and, I think, the only one that matters – is “What if?” Pushing relevant current conditions and trends to a logical, or even extreme, conclusion can be both fun and mind-expanding. And it’s much easier at the outset if you don’t have to worry about being “right.”

For example:

  • What if a majority of millennials choose not to have any children at all?
  • What if commercial space travel becomes common?
  • What if digital currencies like Bitcoin become the preferred way of exchanging value?
  • What if Artificial Intelligence and machine learning lead to massive unemployment in every sector of the economy?
  • What if global climate change is not only real, but the oceans actually rise 20 feet over the next 80 years?
  • What if virtual reality becomes so good that no one wants (or needs) to commute to a physical office anymore?
  • What if bio-genetic science enables physicians to predict your health and life expectancy with foolproof accuracy?

Obviously, I could go on and on, and on. Some of you may think this is a silly exercise, and be ready to dismiss at least the most extreme of these ideas right off the bat.

But, if you have been following me for a while, you might be willing to stop and think about these and other “crazy” possibilities, and then to dig into the questions at a deeper level to determine whether any of them are at least somewhat probable.

After you have identified several What-Ifs that sound intriguing (and perhaps even important), the next step is to ask, in the context of your business, “So What?” In other words, if a possibility ever becomes a probability, how might it affect you and your organization?

To take just one example from the list above, what if the birth rate drops precipitously because millennials as a group come to believe that children are a burden, both on them individually and on the planet and society?

Here are just a few possible consequences I can think of off the top of my head:

  • manufacturers of children’s’ goods like baby food, toys, clothing, and video games would see severe drops in sales;
  • home sales would also suffer as the ideal residence size shrinks;
  • inner cities would thrive, as there would be far less urban flight by young parents in search of suburbs that are safer for children and offer better schools;
  • schools would have fewer budget problems, but teacher salaries would drop as the number of school-age children shrinks; and
  • the entertainment and restaurant industries would thrive as young adults find themselves with higher disposable incomes.

I suspect you could come up with several dozen more So What’s, each of which would have major implications for specific industries and businesses.

Why do I make such a fuss about those two “simple” questions? Mostly because the answers to them matter, and because so few organizational leaders spend any time at all thinking about the future beyond the next quarterly income report. Worse, even when a few members of the C-Suite are paying attention, they almost never share their insights and concerns with their peers.

I believe organizational success and sustainability depends on the leadership team building a shared vision of a likely future. And that’s an extremely rare outcome these days.

If you are not paying attention to how the future might (no, will) change your business model, I can just about guarantee that you will be out of business within 15-20 years.

"Thank You for Being Late"As Thomas Friedman has so eloquently put it in his most recent book, Thank You for Being Late, we are living in an age of accelerations (the plural is not a typo). And nonstop acceleration is not only uncomfortable, it’s dangerous – especially when you don’t realize it’s happening.

Start paying attention to the future now, or you won’t be around when it arrives. As anorganizational leader, you have a responsibility to your shareholders, your employees, and your customers, to take charge of tomorrow, no matter how unpredictable and out of control it may be.

Don’t face the future alone. Jim Ware creates experiences that enable organizational leaders to make sense out of the future and leverage it for competitive advantage.

Contact Jim today, or call  him right now at +1 510.558.1434 to learn how his workshops, keynote presentations, and expertise in orchestrating powerful conversations can put the future to work for you.

Download "Stop Trying to Predict the Future; Just Ask "What if?"" as a PDF

{ 1 comment… read it below or add one }

Bary Sheman April 12, 2017 at 11:30 am

Well-stated argument. It’s making me think “What-If” at several levels. Thanks Jim.


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