Legendary film producer Samuel Goldwyn once said, “Only a fool would make predictions — especially about the future”.
To Goldwyn’s point, history shows just how foolish it is to be overly confident in our assertions of what lies ahead. Consider how many bold predictions by intelligent people have proven to be more than slightly off the mark in recent years:
- The legendary American businessman and inventor Alex Lewyt predicted in the 1950s that “nuclear powered vacuum cleaners will be a reality within 10 years”.
- Ken Olsen, founder and chairman of computer giant DEC, said in 1977: “There is no reason anyone would want a computer in their home”.
- In the late 2000s, Nokia’s chief strategy officer Anssi Vanjoki dismissed the threat Apple posed to his company’s dominance in mobile phones: “With the Mac, Apple attracted a lot of attention at first, but they have remained a niche manufacturer. That will be their role in mobile phones as well”.
- Former Microsoft chief executive Steve Ballmer confidently proclaimed in 2007: “There is no chance iPhone will get any significant market share”. (He also dismissed Google in its early days: “Google’s not a real company. It’s a house of cards”.)
- And last but not least, in 2008, Blockbuster’s chief executive Jim Keyes boasted: “Netflix isn’t even on the radar screen in terms of competition”.
While it’s easy, and even a bit unfair, to use the benefit of hindsight to scoff at such assertions, history is full of examples of leaders and businesses underestimating the potential for their assumptions to be wrong — often with disastrous consequences.
So while trying to accurate predict the future is by no means easy, it’s an exercise every leader and organisation must engage in (albeit with a healthy dose of humility).
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After all, ignoring emerging trends or becoming overly absorbed in the present is naïve or even reckless. In the words of London Business School professor Gary Hamel, “You can’t outrun the future if you don’t see it coming. Individuals who get startled by the future weren’t paying attention”.
Naturally, the question then is: what should a leader be paying attention to in order to be future-ready?
In order to thrive in turbulent times, you must get good at identifying the difference between distractions and disruptions — between waves and tides. Jump at every wave and you’ll soon lose the leadership credibility required when you sense the tide is finally turning.
Business theorists will often refer to these ‘tides’ as discontinuities. In an organisational context, ‘discontinuities’ are defined as unforeseen changes that confound existing assumptions or expectations. Sometimes labelled ‘Black Swans’, these are the ‘unknown unknowns’ that Donald Rumsfeld referred to all those years ago.
The fact that discontinuities are hard to predictable means they represent a huge opportunity for the alert, the prepared and the adaptable. After all, as Harvard Business School professor Clayton Christensen points out, “By the time the writing is on the wall, everyone can read it”.
Being future-ready also means honing your peripheral vision. I recently heard it said that most business leaders today are looking through the wrong lens when trying to identify disruption. Rather than seeking out a telescope with which we scan the horizon, we’d be better off reaching for a wide-angle lens that will help us monitor the periphery.
Smart leaders and visionary leaders know that preparing for, pre-empting and embracing disruption is the only way to ensure you don’t become a victim of it. Discerning what the future holds can be tough — but not as tough as the pain of being caught off-guard.