How to Think Like a Futurist

Robert Tucker
March 18, 2021

Robert Tucker

Driving Growth Through Innovation
Futurists Business Future of Work

When Covid shut down life as we know it a year ago, many a company went into “batten down the hatches” mode. They followed their recession playbooks. When demand took off instead, in such industries as exercise equipment, pet products, and virtual meeting software, many were caught flat-footed. Some are still struggling to catch up.

Wisconsin-based Trek Bicycles is out front right now based on its superior ability to forecast the future. While company officials were reluctant to speak on the record about their early warning system, Trek’s competitors are suffering supply shortages, unfilled orders, and missed opportunities. Relying blindly on one’s recession playbook turned out to be a mistake in many industries when customers surprised them by going in different directions.

Bicycle sales plummeted at first, but were among the first to begin to experience an unexpected surge. In a perennially flat market, they shot up 81 percent over the next 12 months.

Trek’s top-flight forecasting unit saw the countertrend developing and took bold action. “This allowed us to start buying up supplies really early,” noted a company official who did not want to be quoted. “We're buying product now out into calendar year 2022.”

The need to shore up your early warning system both personally and organizationally is a big takeaway from the Pandemic, but the skillset is nothing new. Miss a market shift or misread an important development and the bottom-line results can be disastrous. Jump on a demand trend quickly and you benefit from first-mover status. The need to make prediction-based decisions has never been greater.

As a futurist and innovation coach, I'm convinced every person in leadership and indeed every person in organizational life needs to master the art of thinking like a futurist. We futurists do not have crystal balls, and we do not claim to “predict” trends. If someone claims an inherent ability to predict trends — my suggestion is that person is a charlatan. What we do is to help clients forecast and interpret trends strategically. In fast-changing environments, he who hesitates is lost, as the expression has it. If you wait for others to show you the way to go, it may cost you big time. It’s easy to misread the signals of change because there is simply so much “noise” that poses as signal.

The good news is this: with a bit of extra attention, you can build up your skills in this little-understood arena and your own forecasting skills can become a strength rather than a vulnerability. Not only will this lead to faster response times, but your improved capability at spotting and interpreting trends will empower you to pounce on emerging opportunities.

Here are five strategies to guide you in thinking like a futurist:

1. Audit your information diet.

You can tell a lot about a person simply by inquiring about the news and information sources they avail themselves to — their information diet. I find even among people who watch every calorie and strive for purity in their nutrition, their information diets are another matter entirely. When you take a hard look, what you find are empty calories, fast food, misinformation, and an intake style characterized by superficial grazing of headlines. To check in on your information diet, start by doing a simple assessment of your intake — the various information sources - periodicals, books, reports, newspapers, email newsletters, etc. that you're accessing. Monitor how much time are you spending on trivial items and entertainment, versus content that's substantive, deeply researched and professionally-written. Ask folks in your network what they're reading that’s giving them juice, and share articles of interest. Make it a point to subscribe to publications rather than only grazing the web. Just because information is freely available, doesn’t mean it’s strategic to your future success. Audit your diet, and resolve to make upgrades that will help you think and act like a futurist.

2. Develop your front-line observational skills.

As Covid made us all prisoners of our bunkers, we travel less, experience less first hand, and rely on television and reading. But reading, while essential, is not enough. You’ve got to get out there and see and experience for yourself, whether by attending trade shows and conferences, or scanning and monitoring the wider environment. Think of trend-watching as having your antenna tuned to “news you can use.” Subject yourself not only to the best information money can buy but to opposing points of view and alternate perspectives.

3. Adopt the traits of adept forecasters.

What makes some people better at predicting trends and developments? That’s what University of Pennsylvania researcher Philip Tetlock wanted to know. With funding from DARPA, Tetlock and his team hosted a series of forecasting tournaments to try and identify what separates the most accurate forecasters from the also-rans. He invited people in all walks of life who had an interest in the subject to participate. Turns out the best forecasters are not necessarily the experts in the area being questioned but are philosophically cautious and humble; comfortable with numbers but not always math whizzes; pragmatic and capable of considering diverse points of view, and open-minded. They are intellectually curious and enjoy puzzles and mental challenges.

4. Assault assumptions and preconceived notions.

A good information diet is not enough. You must wrestle with your information intake, play with it, question it, and apply it to your leadership responsibilities. I call this “assaulting assumptions. Innovative ideas don’t come about from understanding the world the way others have explained it to you. They come from fresh, creative, trial-and-error thinking. They require us to challenge our assumptions, think outside previous boundaries, and take prudent, calculated risks. When assumptions are left unchallenged, disaster often strikes. Blackberry's co-CEOs failed to perceive the iPhone, dismissing it as a niche product. Kodak invented the digital camera but dilly-dallied as the invention began to threaten the company's essential business model. Radio Shack ignored consumer trends that rendered it irrelevant.

An assumption is a judgement or opinion reached before the facts are known or maintained after the facts have changed. Ridding yourself of pre-conceived notions and outdated assumptions is hard work. But it is job one for those who wish to think like futurists.

5. Don’t wait till all the data is in before you act.

The Trump administration’s failure to get ahead of the Covid Curve is widely believed to have cost him the election. Precious time was lost first denying the threat, then blaming others (China), and finally being forced to reckon with the magnitude of a global pandemic. On the other hand, Trump’s team gets credit for Operation Warp Speed, which reduced the time necessary to develop a vaccine from 10 years to one. Clearly, speed matters in our world today. You can’t wait till all the data is clear before you act! Even a cursory look at disrupted companies shows that their leaders were waiting for the data to spell “danger.” They were busy operating their companies, and no doubt vaguely aware of the threat to their business model. But often they waited too long, then mounted halfhearted responses to the threat. It's natural human tendency to want to delay action till there is greater clarity in the data. But the advantage that comes to those that intuitively spot trends early is that you are confident to take earlier action.

If you're an executive or manager, it's easy to think we have more time than we do to react to an emerging trend or technology, flank a competitor’s bold move, or catch up to the first movers in our profession or industry. In a world of constant change, it’s vital to pay attention to how we pay attention. The key is to think like a futurist.

 

Robert Tucker

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