Why We Fail To Predict The Future

rns out very different than we imagine.  The more our organisations actively think about the future the easier it becomes to close the future gap and put yourself into that future.

The emergence of new infectious diseases is unpredictable but evidence indicates it may become more frequent. In light of evidence from recent emerging infectious diseases such as Ebola and Zika, the likelihood of this risk has increased since 2015.

UK National Risk Register 2017

A lot of money and time is going to be spent on corporate risk registers in the year ahead. Following a crisis, regulators and managers naturally take steps to prevent a recurrence. There’s a danger of retrospective risk management: believing in and using a strategy that has been successful in the past but is no longer a relevant tactic in the present, never mind the future.

In military terms it’s called fighting the last war. A famous example is when France built a series of concrete fortifications along their border with Germany: the Maginot Line. What was a winning move in WWI didn’t help in WWII, when Germany flanked the Maginot and invaded from the North, from Belgium. A border that the French hadn’t fortified. The line has since become a metaphor for expensive efforts that offer a false sense of security.

It’s one thing to imagine a future scenario and an entirely different thing to preempt it. Pandemics have been top of national risk registers since the end of the nuclear threat, but that didn’t stop most of the western world failing to seal their borders in January 2020. In fact, amidst a global panic many threw out their carefully draw up pandemic response plans and did something entirely different instead.

This week I’ve been at a couple of events where we discussed horizon scanning.

Most executive teams will tell you they scan the horizon on a regular basis. I made a comment the other day that when you probe what horizon scanning means in practice it often equates to just reading the news and following Elon Musk’s Twitter feed. Helena Moore responded “I raise you a HBR subscription and a friend thats a futurist 😀“.

Far from something that is only done randomly, horizon scanning is a structured process designed to capture, make sense of and assess the importance of emerging issues and trends that are often not very obvious today.

In an increasingly complex world organisations need to horizon scan to prepare for future disruption. By the time significant emerging disruptive risks are known, quantifiable and recorded on a risk register, it may be too late to respond effectively.

Weak Signals Getting Stronger

How do you look for non-obvious trends?

According to Vijay Govindarajan weak signals consist of emergent changes to technology, culture, markets, the economy, consumer tastes and behaviour, and demographics.  Weak signals are hard to evaluate because they are incomplete, unsettled and unclear. “Planned opportunism” is his term for responding to an unpredictable future by paying attention to weak signals. Ultimately our organisations will succeed by exploring these weak signals – abandoning them as they fade or focussing investment when they get stronger.

What We Can Learn From Super Forecasters

Jean-Pierre Beugoms is the forecaster featured in Adam Grant’s book Think Again. He has an outstanding record in predicting the outcomes of elections. While regular pundits rated Donald Trump as a joke, with just a 6% chance of gaining the Republican nomination, Jean-Pierre gave him a 68% chance. How? By constantly challenging his own beliefs and biases.

As he says “I would advise people to question assumptions that are unsupported or weakly supported by the evidence. That is the best way to spot potential opportunities to set yourself apart from the crowd. You also need to become adept at evaluating evidence. I would also advise people not to trust their gut. Thinking with your gut is what pundits do and that is why they are so often wrong.”

Most of us don’t have the skills to become super forecasters, celebrated historians or futurists. So what can any of us do practically? I’d suggest:

  • Create a circulatory system for new ideas and provocations
  • Develop the capacity to prioritise, investigate, and act on those ideas
  • Build an adaptive culture that embraces continual change
  • Be prepared to constantly change your mind about what you think you know

No-one can predict the future but history shows us that it often turns out very different than we imagine.  The more our organisations actively think about the future the easier it becomes to close the future gap and put yourself into that future.

And let’s remember the future is not a far-off point: it arrives daily. Our choice is whether to be an active participant in what it looks like or just let it relentlessly unfold around us.


Photo by Paola Ocaranza on Unsplash

How (Not) To Change Someone’s Mind

Faced with the choice between changing one’s mind and proving that there is no need to do so, almost everyone gets busy on the proof.

~John Kenneth Galbraith

We live in a perpetual echo chamber. We follow the people we like and agree with on Twitter, Instagram and Facebook. We read the news sites that have a similar worldview to ourselves. In the process, we trigger algorithms that curate our feeds, further reflecting our own views and biases back at us.

Consequently, our opinions aren’t being stress tested nearly as frequently as they should.

This is inimical to the kind of diversity of thought that innovation requires. Our opinions are often based in emotion and group affiliation, not always facts.

I’ve recently finished reading Think Again: The Power of Knowing What You Don’t Know by organisational psychologist Adam Grant. In a changing world, he says, you have to be willing and able to change your mind. Otherwise, your expertise can fail, your opinions get out of date, and your ideas fall flat.

At the beginning of 2021 I committed to changing my mind on at least of couple of issues. So far I’ve changed my opinion on the benefits (or not) of lockdowns several times. I’ve shifted my position on climate change and also on universal basic income.

Most of us have a strong drive to hold on to pre-existing beliefs and convictions as it keeps us anchored. When your stance on controversial issues both cements your group identity and plants you in opposition to others, changing it can be a very difficult thing to do.

Like me you’ve probably seen a rise in the number of people in your social circles who are worrying about COVID vaccines. They probably aren’t anti-vaxxers, just a bit apprehensive or scared by the some of the negative stories circulating on social media.

Is it possible that the more the Government talks of the success of a vaccine programme, the more it pushes pro-vax messages or talks up ‘vaccine passports’ – that people become more entrenched in their views?

According to Adam Grant, almost definitely. In his book he outlines how from 2016 to 2018 measles spiked worldwide by 58%, with over 100,000 casualties despite a readily available vaccine.

In the U.S public officials have got tough on the problem with some warning that the unvaccinated can be fined up to $1,000 and sentenced to jail for up to six months. Schools have shut their doors to unvaccinated children and one county even banned them from enclosed public places. And yet, the problem persisted.

Surely educating the parents – pointing out that fears about vaccines were unfounded – would work? Not so, in fact introducing people to the research on vaccine safety backfired. They ended up seeing vaccines as riskier. Similarly, when people read accounts of the dangers of measles saw pictures of children suffering from it, or learned of an infant who nearly died from it, their interest in vaccination didn’t rise at all.

Why we resist facts

Presenting people with facts doesn’t always change their mind. Sometimes they harden our views. In experiments, researchers have presented statements to two kinds of people – those who believe that climate change is real and those who are deniers. They found that for both groups, when the statement confirmed what they already thought, this strengthened their beliefs. But when it challenged their views, they ignored it. This is because of a powerful phenomenon known as confirmation bias.

The Harvard psychologist Steven Pinker put it this way, “People are embraced or condemned according to their beliefs, so one function of the mind may be to hold beliefs that bring the belief-holder the greatest number of allies, protectors, or disciples, rather than beliefs that are most likely to be true.”

The way to change people’s mind isn’t to present them with facts , or even to talk at them, it’s about listening to them. As Adam writes in his book “listening is a way of offering others our scarcest and most precious gift: attention.”

It’s through effective listening that the vaccine whisperers of Quebec did change people’s minds. Here, doctors are utilising a new approach to help sway these parents who are hesitant in getting their infants vaccinated. They are speaking to those who have “vaccine hesitancy.” The counselors go in depth with new parents by listening to their concerns and why they’re hesitant, as well as their fears. This isn’t about telling people what to do or think but to helping them find their own motivation to change. The counselors maintain an open conversation with the parents. They address all the parents’ concerns before there’s even a thought about making a vaccination appointment. New parents then have plenty of time to weigh up their options. This isn’t about coerciation or bullying, it’s more about exploring their hesitancy and giving them the motivation and space to make a decision. The right kind of listening encourages people to change.

People who are overweight , smoke or drink too much or do drugs know it’s bad for them. The last thing they need are facts, especially when they may have some alternative facts of their own.

Convincing someone to change their mind is really the process of convincing them to change their tribe, and that’s why it’s so difficult to do.

All of us would benefit from changing our mind more often – but we are unlikely to do it if the end result is loneliness.

Being welcoming of other views, actually seeking out dissent and disagreement and having our ideas and thoughts challenged would lead to a happier and more productive world.

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