While 2020 is coming to an end, questions prompted by uncertainty aren't going away anytime soon: What changes are coming tomorrow? Will they be good or bad? What will the world look like 10 years from now?
It can often seem difficult to anticipate what's coming around the bend. But you don't have to be Elon Musk to predict the future. In fact, it's far easier and far less time-consuming than most people might suspect. The key is simply knowing what to focus on, the right questions to ask and whom to turn to for insight.
If you want to think like a futurist, do these four things every day:
1. Focus on trends, not fads.
Anticipating the future is a process of looking at complex, interrelated events, and the underlying connections between them — not simply studying the temporary effects that they're producing.
Consider the difference between waves and tides: Waves are fleeting events that come and go. They are what we see on the surface of the business world. But an anticipatory leader trains herself to see tides — the megatrends at work deep beneath the surface that are causing those waves, or disturbances.
Example: Data entry clerks, typists and travel agents are among the fastest-declining professions this decade, which is concerning for anyone who's made a career of manually entering requests and filing forms. But more concerning to a futurist is the growing push towards robotics and automation.
Futurists focus on asking the right questions: What's driving this declining trend? What's fueling companies' rising interest in outsourcing tasks to software tools?
The goal is to determine which forces are at work at all times, how they impact the marketplace, and where there's opportunity to shape the future for the positive.
2. Look for signals.
The future is constantly changing. Unfortunately, historical data (which is mostly what we have) isn't always reliable in predicting when things are in a state of change, especially if we're at radical inflection points.
That's why paying attention to signals, which are small developments happening on the margins (i.e., an innovative new product that has the potential to grow in scale and geographic distribution), is important.
Example: The growing use of A.I. software assistants smart enough to pass for humans hasn't upended the business world entirely just yet. (Although you've probably noticed these chatbots asking if they can help you within seconds of visiting your favorite websites.)
But if many can already answer 90% of customers' questions satisfactorily as we speak, what happens when they start to replace dedicated salespeople en masse?
Futurists constantly get in the habit of looking for signals like this.
3. Watch for emerging patterns.
The point of aggregating signals and determining how they connect to big picture trends is to help us spot emerging patterns.
These patterns tell a larger story and point to where the future will head. By observing them, you can see which tools, technologies and business models are on the decline, and which are on the rise.
Example: We're already transitioning from a world where newspapers and magazines were once a primary force for moving the political needle to one where elections may be influenced by tweets and social networks.
As another, while their market share is still nascent, we're also transitioning from an age of conspicuous consumption and gas-guzzling autos to one where sustainability and electric vehicles are poised to eventually be king.
4. Create expert communities.
No one alone can predict the future 100% of the time. Rather, if you want to improve your accuracy, these days it's more of a collaborative and communal affair.
This requires us to cultivate diversity of thought and perspective amongst our teams, and involve experts from many different domains when making decisions.
By doing so, you'll gain more feedback and insight and be more successful at envisioning the future.
Example: Challenge.gov, a platform maintained by the U.S. General Services Administration, assists federal agencies with inviting ideas and solutions directly from the public.
If you look at the website, you'll see that even agencies like the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) — both staffed by some of the world's brightest minds — are putting up cash bounties and contests asking the general public for help developing tomorrow's most advanced technology solutions.
Scott Steinberg is a futurist, keynote speaker on business trends and the bestselling author of "Fast >> Forward" and "Think Like a Futurist." An award-winning strategic consultant, Scott was named by Fortune magazine as a leading expert on innovation. Follow him on Twitter.
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