In the introduction to his latest book, It’s your Future…Make it a Good One, my friend and fellow futurist, Verne Wheelwright offers one of the most succinct explanations of the difference between prediction and foresight. It’s so good that I thought it would be useful to share here.
In the 1950s and 1960s, think tanks and academics developed theories about anticipating the future. What was it that the think tanks found that the wizards and fortune tellers of earlier centuries had not? The answer seems so simple. The fortune tellers had focused on the future, assuming there was only one fixed, or preordained future.
The twentieth-century thinkers changed that main assumption. They were convinced that the future is not predetermined. That realization altered everything about the way we see the future.
Now, it became obvious that if the future is not fixed or predetermined, then more than one future must be available. Finally, they realized that it is possible to change the future through the actions we take in the present. This was a whole new way to look at the future!
While there have been some great examples of organizations that have understood and embraced this distinction, in general I am afraid that most of us still try to predict the future. Certainly the fact that the recent worldwide economic meltdown came as such a surprise is evidence of our continued tunnel vision about tomorrow.
So how can we use this distinction to improve our efforts to create better tomorrows? The first and most important realization is to understand that these futures are filled with possibilities. Some will help us reach our goals, others will present real obstacles to those goals. Some can be anticipated, others will blindside us no matter who well prepared we might think ourselves.
The second realization is that a futures filled with possibilities does not negate the need for a vision for the future. In fact, it makes this vision even more important if we are to avoid being lost in the many streams and currents that will create tomorrow. All efforts to create change have to begin with a compelling vision of the tomorrow we hope to create. This first part comes naturally for most change organizations. A vision of a different future is what motivates the drive to change.
The much more difficult part of creating the future comes in maintaining, growing and evolving that vision. Once we know where we want to be, it is possible to imagine those possibilities that might help us get there and those that might become obstacles. The tricky part comes in becoming aware of the early indicators as to which of these different possibilities might come to fruition. Even more important is learning how to identify and leverage those opportunities when they are still just possibilities.
There are lots of tools and techniques for accomplishing this active foresight, but the most important one is the understanding that, no matter how beautiful your vision for tomorrow is, it must be flexible and open to change.