Tag Archives: Nicholas Talib

The Unpredictable Future – Forecasting the Unpredictable

Get There Early

The dogmas of the quiet past are inadequate to the stormy present. The occasion is piled high with difficulty, and we must rise with the occasion. As our case is new, so we must think anew and act anew. (Abraham Lincoln, 1862 Annual Message to Congress).

I just re-watched Joel Barker’s newest version of his video, The Business of Paradigms.  (See Bob’s interview with Joel Barker from our blog here).  His example of a company that was “sent back to zero,” thus lost out in the midst of a paradigm shift, was Motorola, which switched from analog to digital a few moments too late, and Nokia took over the cell phone market.  The video is a little dated — and now Blackberry, and of course the iPhone, are creating the most buzz, though Nokia is still quite healthy.  Who will lead five years from now?  No one knows for sure.  The life span of a product’s success and dominance has never been as potentially short as it is today.

I recently presented a synopsis of the book Get There Early (Get There Early:  Sensing the Future to Compete in the Present; Using Foresight to Provoke Strategy and Innovation by Bob Johansen, Institute for the Future) to an association of Grantmakers meeting in Sante Fe.  Their world has been greatly effected by the economic downturn.  And one thing was clear – the better you can prepare for the unpredictable future right around the corner, the better you will be able to weather the storm.

Here are some key quotes from this thought-provoking book:

• In today’s marketplace, we have little buffer time between our decisions and their impacts.
• The most intense pain that leaders experience, the pain that keeps them awake at night, is caused by not being able to solve problems…  Every profession has become a dangerous profession – every leader is at risk, and the range of risk is growing.
• For corporations, get there early means finding new markets, new customers, and new products ahead of your competitors…  For non-profits, get there early means anticipating the needs of your stakeholders and sensing emerging issues before they become overwhelming or before others who don’t agree with your issues have taken a commanding position.  Get there early means seeing a possible future before others see it.  Get there early also means being able to act before others have figured out what to do.

Johansen does not claim that we can predict the future.  In fact, he argues that we cannot do so.  But he does strongly recommend forecasting the future.  Here’s another quote:

• A forecast is a plausible, internally consistent view of what might happen.  It is designed to be provocative…  We don’t use the word prediction…  A prediction is almost always wrong… A forecast doesn’t need to come true to be worthwhile.

Johansen recommends a three step approach – foresight, insight, and action.  He includes a number of examples.  Here’s one about Wikipedia:

The Story of Wikipedia’s Encyclopedia for the World

• Foresight:  Much of the world will have limited access to knowledge
• Insight:  The world needs a free, open-source encyclopedia
• Action:  Create Wikipedia

His (Jimmy Wales) ambitious goal is to include “all human knowledge.

I have read (and presented) other books that deal with possible futures coming around the next corner, especially The Extreme Future by James Canton.  He wrote:

Everyone needs to think differently about the future, a future that is riddled with change, challenge, and risk.  It is a new kind of future, not the steady plodding of progress from one moment to the next, punctuated by brief bursts of innovation that characterizes much of history.  Now we face a post-9/11 future.  The future of our lives, of our work, of our businesses – and most of all, the future of our world – depends on us gaining a new understanding of the dizzying changes that lie ahead.  I call this future-readiness.

But the warnings about the potential dangers are everywhere around us in the business book universe.  Gary Hamel in The Future of Management reminds us:

Every business is successful until it’s not.  What’s disconcerting, though, is how often top management is surprised when “not” happens.

And, of course, Nicholas Talib in The Black Swan warns us that there is always another Black Swan waiting to be revealed:

Just imagine how little your understanding of the world on the eve of the events of 1914 would have helped you guess what was to happen next.

So, back to Johansen.  His advice:  forecast!  Create future scenarios, or use some other technique to paint a picture in order to think about the future.  The more possible futures you can imagine and prepare for, the better you will be able to survive that unexpected future that will most assuredly arrive.


• You can order synopses of my presentations for The Black Swan, The Extreme Future, and The Future of Management, at our companion web site, 15 Minute Business Books.  I hope to add the synopsis for Get There Early to the site soon.