Why You Should Quit Predicting What’s Going to Happen

by Tom Koulopoulos

Why You Should Quit Predicting What's Going to HappenIf you’re trying to predict the future, you might want to read this first.

The Web is littered with predictions for what the future will bring. But what if I told you that rather than trying to predict the future, you’re better off just building it?

A bit cliche? Perhaps. But time and again I’ve found that trying to predict the many forces shaping the future is like trying to predict a tsunami; your best bet isn’t hanging out on the shoreline to see if you were correct but rather building the capabilities to withstand it and–for truly great innovators–to surf it.

The problem with the future isn’t that we can’t predict the evolution of basic technology. Every technology that will be used over the next decade is already in some form of early stage testing. Watch a few dozen TED talks, and you’ll have a pretty good future-tech inventory. But the future isn’t that simple.

It’s the behavior

What we cannot predict is the evolution of behavior. Behavior always takes us by surprise. It’s why a McKinsey study in 1980 projected 900,000 cell phones would be in use by 2000. The actual number was just under 1 billion. That’s no rounding error. It’s a fundamental inability to understand how radically our changing behaviors shape the future.

“A McKinsey study in 1980 projected 900,000 cell phones would be in use by 2000. The actual number was just under 1 billion. That’s no rounding error.”

We should know better but we keep making the same mistake. Twenty-seven years later, when Apple introduced the iPhone, pundits thought that the market had peaked at 2.7 billion cell phones–after all, that was nearly half the world’s population and the economic outlook was turning pretty grim. And yet, in the midst of a recession (as it had with the iPod in 2001), Apple was building the future. In 2014 we stood at 7 billion cell phones and 7.2 billion people! Each day globally there were about 350,000 births and 400,000 iPhones sold; so much for predicting the future.

“Each day globally there are about 350,000 births and 400,000 iPhones sold; so much for predicting the future.”

The good news

When it comes to innovation the uncertainty of changing behaviors is the best source of opportunity, and we’ve never seen an era of behavioral change as radical as what’s coming at us in 2015 and beyond. Hyperconnectivity is changing every aspect of how we live, work, and play.

The really big opportunities and the organizations that are exceptional at innovation get this and they deal with uncertainty differently. They are small and nimble, and leverage it in ways their behemoth competitors can’t; they thrive in the face of uncertainty; and they end up shaping our behaviors in ways we’d never imagined.

They know the tsunami is coming, as do most of us; the difference is that while the rest of us are straining to see the future through binoculars, they’re busy waxing their surfboards. So, which is it for the future? Will you predict it, or build it?

Three ways innovative organization build the future:

  1. The leader’s vision must extend beyond the distance of the organization’s fear. Leaders need to provide a convincing case that while the marketplace may be uncertain, their vision extends beyond the short term to a place where entirely new opportunities exist. These sorts of leaders are indeed a rare breed, but they share an ability to build the behavior of the future rather than waiting for it to arrive.
  2. They accept that the overall rate of small failures will increase in order for the overall rate of large success to also increase. Outside of leadership, there is nothing more consistent in every example of highly innovative organizations than the degree to which failure can be tolerated, compartmentalized, and used as a stepping-stone to the next experiment. If people are penalized for taking acceptable risks they will retreat, shy from innovation, and hunker down to avoid friendly fire.
  3. They build a Systemic Process for Innovation–Building and flexing an organization’s innovation muscle requires that it be regularly exercised. While companies like Apple have baked innovation into their culture, the vast majority of companies have no systemic capability or process for innovation. Create an on-going process of future-focused scenario-based planning along with a clear organizational responsibility for harboring disruptive innovation. Think of how Kodak didn’t do this with digital photography and you’ve got a great model of what not to do!

This article was originally published on Inc.

Click here to take the Free Innovation Audit

Wait! Before you go…

Choose how you want the latest innovation content delivered to you:


Thomas KoulopoulosTom Koulopoulos is the author of 10 books and founder of the Delphi Group, a 25-year-old Boston-based think tank and a past Inc. 500 company that focuses on innovation and the future of business. He tweets from @tkspeaks.