“It’s tough to make predictions, especially about the future.” This insight’s been attributed in some form to Neils Bohr, Yogi Berra, Samuel Goldwyn and Mark Twain.
No one’s sure who really said it first. So never mind how hard it is to make accurate assessments of the future—it’s tough enough just to sort out the past.
Still, a few principles can guide you in making smart guesses about the future of your business or industry. Here are five major factors to keep in mind while trying to figure out how the landscape will shift:
1. Human being are social creatures.
When experts tell you that new technology will lead to the disappearance of college campuses or psychotherapists or rock concerts, be skeptical.
Lousy futurists of the previous generation assumed that new technologies would obliterate a range of communal and face-to-face activities. They figured that movie theaters and sports stadiums would supposedly empty out, as people would cocoon themselves in their homes.
But as I’ve noted recently, good futurists knew better. They foresaw that technology would exist to connect people rather than to isolate people—and that, despite smartphones and broadband and satellite TV, they’d clamor for a chance to be a part of large, smelly and increasingly pricey gatherings of other homo sapiens. This is especially true when it comes to identifying with and defending “our particular tribe” of homo sapiens. It’s in our wiring, and it will be for the next million years or so.
2. Human being are selfish creatures. “Men are moved by two levers only—fear and self interest,” Napoleon said. He may have been exaggerating (or maybe he had an overly male-centric view of things), but he had a point.
Here’s a case study: A few generations ago, many experts believed that automation would lead to bliss. Few people would need to till the soil or reap the harvest, and everyone would have endless hours of leisure time.
But competition and a consumer society have made it so that we’re more frenetically busy than ever, fighting for a bigger slice of the pie than the next person. We suffer information overload, because we’re looking for some bit of data that will allow us to get more than the Joneses.
This would have surprised and disappointed the futurists of the previous generation. But it wouldn’t have surprised Napoleon, even though he lived a much longer time ago. Zero-sum competition is always vicious when humans are involved. We seem to like it that way.
The manner in which we’re both selfish and social manifests in how people continue to try to take care of “their own.” This ranges from them compulsively looking out for their nieces and grandsons to full-blown nepotism in the workplace.
3. Trends are not destiny. A few years ago, I began to argue that, contrary to what experts like Thomas Friedman were saying, the United States wasn’t going to fall behind China, India and the whole herd of emerging economies in Asia and Latin America.
Some experts talked about how China would pass up America’s standard of living if it maintained its current explosive rate of growth. I argued that there was a slim chance that China could keep that rate up. Sure enough, within a few months, a number of economic trends in that nation began to reverse themselves.
Don’t be fooled by the talking heads. They have amnesia about the past and naivete about the future. They breathlessly exclaim that X politician is on an unstoppable upward slope to glory, or that Y politician is on an inexorable downward slope to doom.
They’re much like sportswriters, who are quick to anoint one team as the future of the sport after one good season and to relegate another one to the trash heap of history after just one bad season. Then, if the trends reverse themselves again, they instantly forget what they’d previously predicted. And they act as if they knew that the current reality was as inevitable as the sun’s coming and going.
But don’t be fooled by their temporary enthusiasms and certainties.
4. Culture tends to make destiny. “Culture eats strategy for breakfast,” goes the old saying attributed to Peter Drucker or Steve Jobs or perhaps 10 other people. Once again, we can’t seem to even figure this stuff out. In fact, we’re not sure if the original quote was about breakfast or lunch. In any event, the culture of an organization or society sets boundaries on where the individuals within that unit can go.
The Economist this week offered a snapshot of the view of two experts who argue that businesses should study culture more carefully:
They argue that world civilization can be divided into three global archetypes: linear-active, multi-active and reactive. Linear-active culture stresses timekeeping and getting-to-the-point and dominates in North America and northern Europe. Multi-active stresses emotion and sociability and dominates in southern Europe and Latin America. Reactive stresses “face” and harmony and dominates in Asia.
I’d also note that Western society makes a god of innovation and novelty, while many other societies make a god of tradition and stability. Those cultures may be becoming more Westernized, but not without backlashes and headaches and reversals. Keep this in mind when examining the short-term economic prospects of different regions.
The key is this: Don’t just look at the trends and iceberg tips on the surface. Look at the dominant culture that shapes events below the surface.
5. Bell bottoms come and go … then they come again. When the 1970s gave way to the 1980s, fashion-forward hipsters reveled in the demise of boot-cut jeans and sideburns. “That’s so 70s,” they’d snidely say in 1982 of anything that remotely smacked of three years prior.
Their assumption was that the look of Pat Benatar and Duran Duran and day-glo color schemes would reign forevermore. By the early 1990s, grunge had re-appropriated many of the earthy symbols of 70s. That would be followed by waves of nostalgia for the 70s and the 80s and various other eras. And yes, bootcuts and bell bottoms and 70s hair came back in style.
The lesson here is that any futurist who snidely dismisses something as outdated or obsolete is clouding his or her judgment with personal bias. Don’t take such a person’s expertise very seriously.
Now let’s even try to reduce all this to two crisp concepts. When gauging the future, keep this in mind:
- Human nature doesn’t change.
- And things go in cycles.
Perhaps that’s all there is to it, really.