In 1988, Kodak, the leading film company at the time, hired Faith Popcorn to tell them about the future of film. Drawing on research and over a decade (at that time) of experience with BrainReserve, her marketing consultancy, she told Kodak that the future of film would be digital. But Kodak’s vision was narrowed by success and specificity. “That’s not what we asked you,” the team told Popcorn. “We wanted to know the future of film.” They abruptly showed her the door.
Faith Popcorn is a futurist, a specialist who uses a broad array of signals, trends, forecasts, and other models to project plausible outcomes for the future. Companies often bring in these experts to help them strategize long term and prepare for changes looming beyond the horizon. For most people, attempting to see into the future is like trying to peer around a corner: You won’t know what it looks like until you get there. However, there are practices that futurists use—and that you can develop—that will improve your accuracy in understanding what the future is likely to bring and allow you to move with agility once it arrives.
Three prominent futurists and thought leaders–Amy Webb, Faith Popcorn, and Rita McGrath–offer a three-step process to help avoid pitfalls many experience when they try to plan for the future and develop a set of strategies to take action in a variety of scenarios.
Don’t study your industry. Broaden your perspective
Most future trend reports are oriented toward an industry: Top Ten Trends in Fintech, Top Ten Trends in Healthcare, etc. This is a mistake.
Amy Webb is the founder of the Future Today Institute, one of Thinkers50’s top management thinkers of 2021, and author of the newly released book on the future implications of synthetic biology, The Genesis Machine. She teaches an MBA course on strategic foresight and futures forecasting at the NYU Stern School of Business. Her method of quantitative futurism uses data to model out possible, feasible future scenarios and develop strategies around them.
Her approach begins with plotting out a “fringe map” of developing trends that may be relevant to you. When doing so, she advises organizations to broaden their perspectives. “When people think about the future, they tend to focus on one thing,” she explains. “For example, if they’re trying to figure out the future of cars, they really need to be thinking about the future of mobility. If they only consider the future of cars, that limits us to a future where we only have cars.”
Like Popcorn’s visit to Kodak in the 1980s, you can see that holding tightly to a narrow definition of your industry can be disastrous. By widening your aperture, you open up an array of possible scenarios and likely future concepts. This will help you refine a variety of strategies to have in your back pocket.
Rita McGrath is a global expert on innovation and corporate growth strategy, well known for her ability to help companies “see around corners” in order to avoid disruption. She suggests that, to help you assess which of the broad, cross-industry trends are most important, you should detail your assumptions and develop ways to test them, quickly and inexpensively:
With more data, you can then take the next step. It’s breaking your monolithic plans into addressable checkpoints, getting the results of your experiments back and re-planning. That is the magic.
Based on your insights, data, and continued questioning, you start separating the signals from noise, identifying which potential trends to pay attention to, which allows you to start formulating your plans.
Don’t talk to experts. Explore at the edges
Futurism is not only about spotting trends. New technologies don’t determine the future. Rather, futurists start with trends to begin to identify emerging concepts and language around those technologies. For example, the idea of a taxi service was not new, but Uber’s concept of coordinating uncoordinated passengers and drivers revolutionized ride-sharing. Not long after, we began to hear about the “uberization” of industries.
McGrath proposes that big changes begin to show themselves at the edges of organizations and marketplaces, where you will discover emerging customer problems, ways those problems are being solved, and diverse perspectives.
To contact these edges, McGrath recommends finding your “helpful Cassandra’s,” as Andy Grove, the late CEO of Intel would say. She explains:
These are people who are often not in a decision-making capacity, but who have deep insight into changing phenomena. Listen to them. More importantly, regularly get away from the day-to-day to look at how the weak signals of future change are developing. Many things are knowable, but not if you aren’t paying attention.
Speaking not just to formal experts but to people on the edges, working to solve problems, will require getting out of your comfort zone and your bubble of personal network or experiences. Organizations can facilitate this by empowering small, agile teams and incentivizing employees to bring up uncomfortable or contradictory insights.
All three women agree on scouting out trends on the edges of society and organizations. Popcorn’s BrainReserve sources from the insights of 10,000 visionaries and future thinkers across industries. A quantitative futurist, Webb’s approach uses a team to develop a “fringe map” of signals of change in technology and society.
Don’t build a timeline. Backcast instead
Popcorn shared the No. 1 mistake people make when trying to predict the future in an interview:
I think the greatest error that people make . . . is trying to extrapolate what’s going to happen from what happened in the past. That is a major error. The way to figure out the future and become an overnight futurist is to look forward.
When you attempt to predict the future based on what is currently happening, you limit the scope of your imagination to the companies, thinking, and trends already at play today. That leaves little room for new standards, technologies, and ideas that are sure to develop over time. Popcorn suggests taking the opposite approach using a technique called backcasting: Look ahead 10 or 20 years, visualize an imagined future of your industry, then create a chronological roadmap of what it will take to get there.
Webb and many other futurists also use backcasting to work backward from an imagined future state. However, she warns against the temptation to set timelines. Webb argues the need to think outside of the typical one, three, or five-year strategic planning horizons, because the evolution of our industry will be impacted by multiple technologies and concepts that will evolve at differing paces. It’s not hard to predict the future one or decades from now. But the timing by which the milestones to that future will appear is hard to predict. Trying to follow a rigid linear timeline leaves organizations vulnerable to disruption.
Ancient Greeks used two different terms to describe time. The one we are most familiar with, chronos, refers to sequential (or “chronological”) time. Their second word, kairos, refers to time as being marked by opportune time for action. Chronos is quantitative; kairos is qualitative. Chronos seeks to tell you the date and year in which something will happen. Kairos seeks to tell you under what conditions something will happen.
Effective backcasting demands kairos, which flies in the face of traditional planning methods.
McGrath offers a practical way to plan without a timeline. After identifying the critical trends you want to track (step 2), define the critical indicators that determine whether a trend is now changing things. For example, “when the cost of solar energy drops to be within 10% of fossil fuel” and “when insurance claims for floods and forest fires grows by 30” then we will see an acceleration in the mainstream adoption of alternative energy. This point in time is not defined by a date but by a state.
Kodak (and others) realized the methods of skilled futurists are becoming more critical as companies across industries face unprecedented speeds of change. In the past, disruption was sporadic—an organization built up economies of scale, found a strategy that worked, and relied on that same strategy for years with minimal adjustments.
Today, the future is accelerating more rapidly and causing mass chaos. This requires a different approach. By broadening your perspective beyond your industry, exploring the edges of the areas you explore, and backcasting without a timeline you will begin thinking like a futurist. You will be more skilled at anticipating disruption and be prepared to thrive in an uncertain world.