Leaders Shouldn’t Attempt to Predict the Future

January 25, 2011

…At least not with a high degree of precision. Specific predictions – even if they are right in a general sense – are very likely to be wrong in small ways. If that happens, you will risk losing people’s confidence because you were wrong on those specifics, regardless of how correct you were from a directional standpoint.

Part of the problem with prediction – particularly reaching too far into the future – is that you can be trapped by your own times.

Consider the following:

The original Star Trek TV series made use of a futuristic (for the 1960s) hand-held communicator. It took the walkie-talkie to a new level by substantially boosting its range, but from a prediction-accuracy standpoint the communicator pales in comparison to the smart phones that we have today.

Arthur C. Clarke was a great science fiction writer and futurist, and he foresaw a neat gadget he called the “Newspad” in 2001: A Space Odyssey. People could use this device to watch TV and read newspapers, much like the iPad of today. Even a visionary like Clarke missed on small details: He didn’t mention the ability to purchase and download books or the capability to perform other tasks like running applications and games – but he was darn close. (However, if the iPad was inspired by the Newspad, then it only makes sense that it was adapted for our times and technology.)

Many older science fiction movies make use of “advanced” computers (HAL puts them to shame) that are noisy. They are duplicating the sounds of keypunches and printers used in the early days of computing. Often times weak graphics (or plain text) are displayed on screens and even primitive printed output is used by “advanced” star-travelers.

Near-term predictions can be equally difficult. Disruptive technology has proven problematic for established companies, with leaders blind to early signals of change. Bill Gates, for example, did a great job of recognizing the opportunity of the personal computer, but was late in understanding the impact that the Internet represented. Today, mobile and social media lead the sea of change, but how will the desire for privacy play out against the motivation to be social, and at what personal and monetary price?

What’s a leader to do?

Instead of predicting a specific outcome, focus on the trends and key drivers that are available and discuss what these mean to your business and the direction that you need to take your organization. Creating specific products and services oriented in a certain direction will test your assumptions and inform you and your organization about what adaptations need to be made.

What you really need to be true to is your mission and purpose. Products and services can and will change over time, but your core beliefs and your organizational passion should be about your mission, your purpose for existing as an organization.

If accurate predictions about the future are what you really want, I’ll quote Alan Curtis Kay: "The best way to predict the future is to invent it."