Courtesy H.Koppdelaney (Flickr)

Journalists often write lazy articles compiling forecasts that have not come to pass, attributing them to futurists. Real futurists always respond, “Futurists don’t make predictions!”

That is true in theory: the goal of futurism is not to make predictions. In any case, the mockery-inducing forecasts are usually by non-futurists. (Defensive futurists might also note that other sort-of-respected professions such as economics differ from futurism chiefly by getting things wrong much faster than futurists do.)

Still, the truth is that real futurists, people who get called futurists, and people who could be called futurists make forecasts that sound a great deal like predictions all the time.

You can attack these forecasts cheaply and sloppily, as the media often does, but they can also be approached as genuinely useful tools in diagnosing the quality of someone’s thinking. Forecast accuracy can help illuminate three things:

  • Subject knowledge: If the person is making a forecast about a topic, this is fair game, even if many futurists concentrate on process, not content. Accuracy can help reveal whether they know enough about a topic to work effectively in the area — and whether they understand the limitations of their knowledge.
  • Perceptions of change: A basic futurist skill is having a feel for change: how fast or slow change tends to go, and the plausible bounds of that speed, in different arenas and systems. Incorrect forecasts are often due to a failure in this critical area.
  • Systems thinking: Forecast failures often reveal inadequate systems thinking, another basic futures competency. The person may not have understood the driver or actors in the system, or might have failed to anticipate a discontinuity.

So forecast accuracy should be used judiciously in evaluating the quality of foresight, but it can be a meaningful yardstick.

Image: geishaboy500 (Flickr)

In an earlier post I described how Ernie and Mr. Hoots, of Sesame Street fame, reminded me of an important strategy principle. Ernie is having trouble playing the sax while holding onto his rubber duckie, and Mr. Hoots tells him (in a wonderful musical number), “You gotta put down the duckie if you wanna play the saxophone.” In other words, you need to focus on just one thing at a time. That’s a key principle of strategy as well as saxophone playing, one that my Foresight Alliance colleague Terry Grim stresses when she teaches strategy.

But it seems to me that there is more to be learned from Ernie’s duckie vs. saxophone quandary. Why is it so hard for him to put down the duckie? Well, it’s familiar, it’s comfortable, and it’s reliable. Ernie probably can’t remember or imagine life without his favorite duckie. Many organizations have their own rubber duckies—product or service offerings, business models, or commonly accepted beliefs about the way their industry works (Gary Hamel calls these “orthodoxies”) that have served them well for many years. When it comes to a strategic choice between the rubber duckie and something new, it’s hard to imagine putting down the duckie.

Of course the saxophone—the new business strategy—is also very attractive. The saxophone is shiny and new, fashionable and sophisticated, and offers a myriad of possibilities for improvisation and invention. At the same time it’s unfamiliar, and it has a tendency to squeak at inconvenient moments. Learning to play the saxophone takes a lot of practice and hard work, just like developing a new product, adopting a new business model, or overturning a closely held orthodoxy.

Saxophone or duckie? It’s a tough choice. The bittersweet subtext of Ernie’s encounter with Mr. Hoots is that shifting from the duckie to the saxophone is part of growing up. Likewise, if you want your organization to grow, “You gotta put down the duckie if you wanna play the saxophone.”

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