“You cannot predict the future, but you can create it.” — Peter Drucker
Early on in my career, I kept getting surprised by how the world changed. It could be things at work like reorgs or new priorities or changes in direction.
And that’s a big deal at Microsoft.
It could be big things in the world like new threats I didn’t see coming. It could be changes in what the market wants. It was changes in what skills are in demand.
I was especially getting surprised by trends.
I noticed the pattern, but I felt like I didn’t have much control over it.
I thought the best thing I could do was to try to predict the future.
The Best Way to Predict the Future is To Create It
There are a few variations of the quote related to creating the future vs. predicting it that have inspired my journey:
“The best way to predict the future is to create it.”
— Abraham Linoln (it’s doubtful Lincoln said this as it’s not in any of his collective writings)
“You cannot predict the future, but you can create it.”
— Peter Drucker
“It’s easier to invent the future than to predict it.”
― Alan Kay
“The way to cope with the future is to create it.”
— Ilya Prigogine
“The future cannot be predicted, but futures can be invented.”
— Dennis Gabor (Might be the original source of the quote)
But the reality is, before I could even think about creating and shaping the future, I had to get much better at understanding systems, ecosystems, trends, and insights.
After all, insight is the build block of innovation and trends are the breeding ground of new value creation.
Ultimately, it’s the mash up that matters, when it comes to creating new innovative scenarios.
To Figure Out the Future, Think in Systems
I remember a conversation with one of my mentors about how all the changes I see at work are really the effect of plans and ideas that were put into place long ago.
He reminded me to think in terms of systems (and ecosystems).
He reminded me that things don’t just happen, even if they seem like it.
While it might appear random or chaotic, it’s really the by product of other people upstream trying to change their world.
And it rolls downhill.
I realized the best way to learn more about changes at work was to simply connect with the people that were making the changes or people that always seemed to know what the changes would be.
But I didn’t want to optimize around changes at work.
To me, work was a reflection of what’s happening in the world, out in the market.
Work is a response.
At least, that view was helpful to inspire me to take a broader, deeper look at trends and insights that were shaping the world.
I figured if I could master learning trends and insights, I could actually figure out the most likely future scenarios.
So I started collecting trends and insights by researching people, sites, books, and articles.
To See Further, Stand on the Shoulders of Giants
I found that if I could find the right people and the right sites, my job got a lot easier.
I am a fan of standing on the shoulders of giants and there are people that live and breathe the future.
My simple strategy was to stand on their shoulders.
I also found that the right book authors were incredibly insightful when it came to making sense of the future.
At first I wondered how could they possibly write a book about things that don’t exist yet and be worth learning ahead of time.
Eventually, I realized that what these authors are very good at, is they see systems.
And they see ecosystems.
They see the actors in the systems, they know the triggers and events. They know the downstream consequences.
I also had to keep a very core idea in mind. The authors don’t have to be right.
They simply have to help me see new possibilities.
The world changes and the world can change fast, but if you know the possibilities then you can respond much better, and you get surprised let.
Build a Balcony View of Consumer and Tech Trends
One of the best exercises I do each year is build a balcony view of trends.
I create a snapshot of the big trends shaping the world. I’ve found it really helpful to learn consumer trends as well as technology trends.
Between those two broad categories I learn a lot. In many ways, consumer behavior drivers the world, and in many ways, consumer behavior is a response or reflection of the changing world.
And by learning technology trends, I can start to see patterns of where things might change.
For example, Ai in banking, AI in health, AI in education, etc. Or blockchain in banking, blockchain in health, blockchain in retail, etc.
Before knowing the specific use cases, it helps to know what the catalysts for change might be.
Worry Less, Be Ready More
Another really important idea I learned here was to not worry about being right about the future.
Worry about being ready.
That’s actionable. In fact, I learned I have to be willing to be wrong.
If I tried to be right, then my view of the future was fragile.
Instead, I found it far better to know that multiple futures were possible, and then simply to figure out which scenarios or scenes of the future were more likely (I like to think in terms of scenes of the future).
So instead of trying to predict what the future would be, I would play out possibilities.
And I’m a fan of think globally but act locally.
So with my mental model of how the world around me could change, I started getting better at being ready for anything.
I was surprised less and ready more.
My big lesson is that I learned how to respond better and get surprised less by learning emerging trends.
Call to Action
- Practice learning top consumer and top tech trends so you understand how your world might change around you.
- Practice mapping out systems and ecosystems in your world. For example, how does your next year investment get budgeted at work? How do big bets get decided? Who decided them? Who influences? etc.
- Practice figuring out multiple possible futures and telling simple stories of how things might change. It can help to use the Principle of Contrast by saying how, today you do X, but in 6 months, 1 year or 2 years, you might do Y or Z.
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