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Why It’s So Hard to Plan for the Future

5 min
Oct 25

Antonio Iacobelli/Getty Images

Leaders have always been eager to see into the future. What will delight customers in six months, a year, two decades? What external factors will influence their industries? What technologies will upset them? Uncertainty, complexity, and volatility-not to mention our own cognitive biases-often foil these attempts to take the long view.

That's why we need to remain vigilant in rationally calculating the future effects of big choices, says science writer Steven Johnson. In Farsighted: How We Make the Decisions That Matter the Most, Johnson reminds us that "the ability to make deliberative, long-term decisions is one of the few truly unique characteristics of Homo sapiens "-and we're actually getting better at it.

Take scenario planning. The power of this common tool lies in the discipline with which it forces us to explore uncharted territory. For example, we can counteract the "fallacy of extrapolation"-a bias that causes us to assume that a current trend will continue into the future-by imagining in detail multiple ways a situation might unfold. Johnson suggests examining at least one model that is particularly optimistic, one that is particularly conservative, and one that is just plain odd. The exercise is not about predicting the future; it's "a rehearsal" for it.

A rule of thumb for predicting is that the more inputs you have, the better. Research by Wharton professor Philip Tetlock shows that people who consider multiple points of view make better predictions than those who hew to one perspective. Johnson concurs, recommending that decision makers cultivate diverse voices to avoid blind spots, using small-group activities like charettes to allow those voices to be heard.

Varied points of view can lead to friction, but that's to be encouraged. In Imagine It Forward: Courage, Creativity, and the Power of Change, former GE executive Beth Comstock has a name for outsiders who challenge the team to think differently: sparks. She notes that for corporate incumbents like GE, the problem of predicting the future is compounded by the paralyzing fear of making a wrong move because there's so much to lose. Sparks create the kind of discomfort that jolts people into action.

One such spark was entrepreneur and The Lean Startup author Eric Ries, whom Comstock brought in to talk to GE leaders and engineers about new-product development. The existing process depended on making big forecasts about sales and then slowly building a massive product toward that prediction. Comstock wanted to challenge people to think about the future in fresh ways. Ries came from a very different cultural context: Silicon Valley. When he began prodding, the folks at GE admitted that they didn't actually believe the predictions-and realized that they didn't have to predict so far out if they found ways to test ideas in the market quickly.

Fear of forward movement in the face of the unknown is just as prevalent among individuals as it is in firms, and Comstock has a tool for that, too. When her students at Crotonville, GE's institute for management, say they can't do something new because the company won't let them, she literally hands them a permission slip. As interested in creating the future as she is in predicting it, Comstock suggests that would-be innovators keep a stack of such slips at their desks: "Give yourself permission to imagine a better way," she advises.

Leadership guru Simon Sinek sees our difficulty in taking the long view as a mistake of mindset. In his book The Infinite Game, he contrasts activities that have finite rules-like chess-with those that constantly present new challenges-like business. In "infinite games," fixing on a just cause is the only way to outlast existential crises, adapt, and thrive into the future. Much as some parents focus on raising an inquisitive child rather than an obedient one, Sinek urges that leaders think less about endgames and more about new opportunities. Strive to build a customer relationship rather than close a sale; be attentive to the growth of individuals rather than quarterly earnings.

In On the Future: Prospects for Humanity, Martin Rees doesn't tell us how we should think about the future; instead he lays out his own predictions. A celebrated cosmologist and astrophysicist, Rees has written many books on popular science. This one examines trends in biotech, AI, the global climate, and spaceflight. In prognosticating about AI, Rees notes that machines will enable us to make better predictions about everything from which stocks will soar to which diseases will do us in. Of course, they also reveal the overwhelming complexity of our world, as technologist David Weinberger warns in a recent Wired article, forcing us to confront the fact that uncertainty isn't going away anytime soon. (Disclosure: I'm editing Weinberger's forthcoming book from HBR Press.)

A common thread across these volumes is the importance, and difficulty, of combating climate change. Rees laments the ongoing destruction of our planet, sorting out what we can predict-say, how much our CO 2 emissions will warm the planet-from what we can't-how the associated changes in clouds and water vapor will influence further climate change. Comstock's story of bringing the Ecomagination strategy to life at GE exemplifies the challenges of getting a big organization to tackle global ecological problems. Sinek sees federal legislation to reduce emissions as an act of an infinite mindset. And Johnson opens his book with a critique of the shortsighted decision to fill in Manhattan's only source of fresh water in the early 19th century.

Johnson maintains that we're much more deliberate in our predictions and decisions today, but I'm not so sure. Leaders seem unable to agree on what to do in the face of a warming planet. These books point to the need for a stronger response to looming challenges like climate change. We must push ourselves to imagine the fast-approaching future, counteract short-termism and other biases clouding our perspective, look for opportunities to innovate, and recognize that, although it may seem impossible to chart a course in an unpredictable world, inaction itself is also a decision.

A version of this article appeared in the November-December 2018 issue (p.148-149) of Harvard Business Review.

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