I have been to a gazillion conferences during the 35 years of Creative Ventures and I have listened to a lot of Futurists. I love them, they are incredibly entertaining and make you think, but, as far as being accurate, or providing actionable strategy, not so much. Futurism is a big business as everyone, every company and organization wants to know, “What do we do next?” But is future thinking always the best path forward when the past is more predictable?
“When it comes to the future, one word says it all. You never know. “Yogi Berra
The Rate of Change
The problem is that the range of possible futures is always changing, like fog; it’s hard to pin down. Things change at rates that boggle the mind and these changes are often strange enough to furrow your bro
- In 1929, astronomer Edwin Hubble changed our understanding of the universe as he discovered it was expanding and not contracting, kind of like it should.
- For the past ten years, marriages in the United Kingdom for 65-year-olds has grown by 46%, when we were told the institution of marriage was, like our old view of the universe, contracting.
- In the early 1980s, AT&T paid a huge consulting company to give them a prediction on the future of cell phones just prior to the year 2000. The prediction, 900,000 users. The reality, 738 million users.
The Right and Wrong of It
In 1968, Stanford professor Paul Ehrlich wrote the apocalyptic book, The Population Bomb. In it, he predicted global famine and societal upheaval in the 1970s and 80’s. Despite his numerous failed predictions, he developed a huge following.
- Global economy impacting national economies.
- The impact of the “mega states”, California, Texas and Florida.
- The move to an information based society.
But even this recognized futurist only hit on 30% of his predictions.
In 1984, phycologist and political science professor, P.E. Tetlock, did extensive studies into what experts were predicting for our future. In a project spanning 20 years he studied 284 forecasts from highly educated experts and discovered the experts were “horrific” at predicting anything with any sense of accuracy.
So why do we remain so fascinated with those who claim to possess the crystal ball of tomorrow? In an accelerated world, we are frightened of a future that might not have a place for us. We hurry to the next shiny new thing, often with not the best of outcomes.
Sometimes You Have to Look to the Past to Move Foward
Do you know what is easy to predict? The past. The past is always accurate. Here is a great example:
Imagine you were in attendance at the Amazon meeting where they hatched the idea to launch their Amazon Prime subscription service. It must have sounded crazy, “Let me get this straight. You want to charge people money to do more business with us?” Yep. Why would anyone do that? The past predicted its success.
In 1744, Benjamin Franklin launched the first retail catalog. It only sold science and academic books, but people leaped at the chance to order. In 1872, Montgomery Ward published another 1-page catalog of available items and, a decade later, it would be 540 pages long with over 20,000 items.
Amazon didn’t need to predict the future; they simply looked at the past. From Tiffany’s to Sears there is a proven history of three key factors:
- People want lots of stuff.
- They want their stuff cheap.
- And, they want their stuff fast.
I am as interested as anyone is in what will happen tomorrow. What will be the next thing? What do I have to do to get ready? Will there be a place for me?
In writing the book, The 21 Secrets of Million-Dollar Sellers, I was repeatedly reminded of the past, of how great sales professionals built personal relationships despite the potential convenience of a “one-click” solution. I’m amazed at how hard they worked on stories and simplification to create these relationship foundations. The future is like grabbing a photon, elusive but important, just don’t forget the lessons of yesterday and hold tight, it’s gonna be a bumpy ride.