Phil Dearson

How to predict the future

published7 months ago
2 min read

Life can only be understood backwards; but it must be lived forwards.
Søren Kierkegaard

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If you work with technology, or have any interest in it at all, you will eventually have to consider The Future. Many times over the years I’ve been asked variations of what’s coming next, how do we prepare for the future, what should our focus be, what do we need to change, do we have the right skills and partnerships?

Once upon a time I was the Head of Digital for a large agency that focused on serving retail and FMCG clients (that’s CPG if you’re in the US). Fast-Moving Consumer Goods or Consumer Packaged Goods. To celebrate the agency’s 20th anniversary we put on a huge exhibition about, yes, The Future of Retail.

As part of the exhibition we created a “timeline of the future” with a very sexy interactive display. It charted a number of potential socio-economic and retail-specific events over the next 50 years or so. The events on the timeline were entirely plausible but oh-so-very-wrong.

What did I learn from this? Projected futures based on the current state of things, or how things have been in the recent past, are poor predictors of the actual future. Randomness shouldn’t be underestimated.

Things I couldn’t have predicted:

  • the global financial crash (I’d predicted a system failure related to personal data instead)
  • the pandemic (ok, I did call this but got the dates totally wrong)
  • Brexit (didn’t see this coming at all)
  • Trump (despite the very obvious clue in Back To The Future 2)

Things I got wrong:

  • The Chinese lunar missile crisis doesn’t look like it’s going to happen on schedule (phew)
  • Tesco still haven’t converted Clubcard Points into a cryptocurrency
  • John Lewis haven’t developed an algorithmic price-matching tool yet either (never knowingly undersold)

Predicting the future is a mug’s game. It’s nebulous and unknowable and unlikely to follow the patterns of the past. Yet thinking about the future is what drives so many change and transformation initiatives in business. There have been so many that people are suffering “change fatigue”. In this great article by Greg Satell he dives into research revealing that, while leaders often see change programmes as exciting prospects, employees are skeptical and see the initiatives as yet another burden. The transformation programmes are disrupting people rather than industries.

The best approach is to keep things simple and don’t try to do too much at once. Identify problems that matter. You can use tools like the N2D Method for this. Then, when thinking about how the future might unfold in relation to these important problems, you can try using a framework like the Futures Cone.

The Futures Cone is useful because it forces you to recognise that there are many potential futures:

  • Projected - the default if business continues as usual
  • Probable - likely to happen based on current trends
  • Plausible - could happen given our current knowledge
  • Possible - might happen if we get new, future knowledge or capabilities
  • Preposterous - impossible
  • Preferable - a subjective future that we want to happen

I'll leave the last word to Niels Bohr:

Prediction is very difficult, especially if it's about the future


Here are some things you might find interesting...

The Craft of Forecasting Our Possible Futures

This is an interview with Jane McGonigal and her work running huge games where people simulate the future for research purposes. People tend to feel less anxious about the future if they’ve simulated it, which is a core practice in Stoicism (but she doesn’t get into that).

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