The ability to plausibly forecast the future requires alternating between broad and narrow ways of thinking.
Futurists are skilled at listening to and interpreting signals, which are harbingers of what’s to come. They look for early patterns — pretrends, if you will — as the scattered points on the fringe converge and begin moving toward the mainstream. The fringe is that place where hackers are experimenting, academics are testing their ideas, technologists are building new prototypes, and so on. Futurists know most patterns will come to nothing, so they watch and wait and test the patterns to find those few that will evolve into genuine trends. Each trend is a looking glass into the future, a way to see over time’s horizon. This is the art of forecasting the future: simultaneously recognizing patterns in the present and thinking about how those changes will impact the future so that you can be actively engaged in building what happens next — or at least be less surprised by what others develop. Futures forecasting is a learnable skill, and a process any organization can master.
Joseph Voros, a theoretical physicist and senior lecturer in strategic foresight at Swinburne University of Technology in Melbourne, Australia, offers my favorite explanation of futures forecasting, saying it informs strategy making by enhancing the “context within which strategy is developed, planned, and executed.”1 The advantage of forecasting the future in this way is obvious: Organizations that can see trends early can better prepare to take advantage of them. They can also help shape the broader context, with an understanding of how developments in seemingly unconnected industries will affect them. Most organizations that track emerging trends are adept at conversing and collaborating with those in other fields to plan ahead.
Although futures studies is an established academic discipline, few companies employ futurists. That’s starting to change as more leaders become familiar with the work futurists do. Accenture, Ford, Google, IBM, Intel, Samsung, and UNESCO all have had futurists on staff, and their work is quite different from what happens within the traditional research and development (R&D) function.
The futurists at these organizations know that their tools are best used within a group — and that the group’s composition matters tremendously to the outcomes they produce. Here’s why. Within every organization are people whose dominant characteristic is either creativity or logic.