Generals, the old saying goes, are always fighting the last war. In the age of global pandemic and Moore’s Law, this is a prescription for disaster.
Artificial intelligence, quantum computing, disinformation, and biotechnology are “making traditional battlefields and war-fighting methods increasingly irrelevant,” notes a just-released bipartisan task force report on the “Future of Defense.”
These days, generals and policy-makers in Washington are not the only ones who need to stop fighting the last war. All leaders today, no matter what industry or profession, need to hone their capacity to look, think and act ahead of the curve. The future is arriving faster than ever.
The ability— but more importantly the willingness — to think forward will be a key component of organizational and personal success going forward. The next decade is certain to be more volatile, uncertain, complex and ambiguous than ever before.
And full of potential, at the same time— for those who are” future-ready.”
As a futurist and innovation advisor, I regularly witness the competitive advantages of forward thinking. I also observe the downside effects of being stuck in the past (consider the fate of Blockbuster, Kodak, JCPenny, Blackberry and many others).
Since the early 1980s, I’ve studied the patterns and habits of visionary leaders. My research suggests that forward thinking is a learned behavior, rather than an innate human ability. We can get better at sizing up what is to come — and seizing the inherent opportunities therein — by being curious, outwardly focused on change in all its dimensions, and pro-active in our information intake.
To improve your abilities as a forward thinker, focus on two areas: strategic foresight and innovation skills. Strategic foresight is the byproduct of taking in quality information, reading signals of change that could spell danger or opportunity, tracking trends, examining scenarios of possible futures, and exercising your imagination. It’s also projecting ahead (forecasting) what is most likely to happen and what will be needed in the future.
By considering these five questions, you’ll gain quick insight into where you stand currently, and I’ll offer suggestions for skill-building your forward thinking abilities.
1. Do friends, family or colleagues ever acknowledge you for your imagination?
If they do, that’s a good sign that you are already someone who thinks ahead.
Imagination is the ability to form mental images of something in advance of it being real. The future becomes clear to all of us at some point. But it does so in advance for those who engage their imaginations, and turn vision into reality.
Forward thinking is something all of us do all the time in order to get through the day. You are doing it when you read the weather report and then take your umbrella. You are forward thinking when you conjure up the layout of your dream house before you ever start drawing up a blueprint.
At work, you are forward thinking when you look at an aging product line and imagine ways it can be revitalized for today’s customer. Forward thinking is looking at something everyone around you labels a problem, and pondering how it might become an opportunity. It’s seeing in your mind’s eye how you want that important meeting with clients to go next week. It’s working on the fourth quarter of next year, and planning for the year after that.
If people around you perk up when you speak about your plans, your dreams, your visions — it probably means you’re adept at being a forward thinker already. And of course coming up with ideas is only part of the equation. The other part is bringing ideas to life.
2. Do you periodically audit your “information diet”?
Your information diet includes all the numerous information sources you avail yourself to: newsfeeds, the periodicals and daily newspapers you subscribe to, plus industry reports, email newsletters, etc. When you audit your info-intake, you’re really questioning how rich it is, and how it might be improved.
To assess yours, calculate how many in-depth articles and non-fiction books you’ve read in the last six months. Covid-19 and an erratic president of the United States have placed us all in a constant state of distraction and anxiety. Our collective information intake has skewed heavily towards breaking news about the current crisis. Temporarily, this was inevitable. But as a longer-term information diet, it is the moral equivalent of trying to survive off a diet of McDonald’s Happy Meals.
If you want to accelerate your forward-thinking skills, start with your informational intake. Conduct a simple assessment of your information diet: turn “garbage in, garbage out” into “good things in, good things out.” Monitor how much time are you spending on trivia, gossip, and entertainment, versus those that are substantive, fact-checked, well-researched and future-inspiring. Set aside time regularly to read without interruptions (long flights work best for me). Subscribe to worthy publications rather than “grazing” the web and partaking solely of free information. And read broadly, especially history and biography, and encourage yourself to “read up on” subjects in the news that you’re not naturally interested in.
A well-rounded informational diet will pay big dividends in the future.
3. Do you regularly sharpen your forecasting skills?
While nobody can predict the future, you and I must make predictions all the time in terms of where to invest, where to work, and what decisions we make. So why are some people better able to make accurate predictions?
University of Pennsylvania professor Philip Tetlock has looked into this question. he studies why some people are better than others at predicting what will happen in the future. His research indicates that most of the noted experts you see on television have the accuracy of “dart throwing chimpanzees.” But that there are folks out there among us who somehow have an ability in this area.
Tetlock and his researchers host “forecasting tournaments” to identify what separates superior forecasters from the rest. In these competitions, thousands of non-expert everyman volunteers answer a series of questions on various current events topics, from when the Global Pandemic will actually end, to the near term stability or instability of the Eurozone.
Tetlock has identified a small group of people who generated forecasts that beat the rest of tournament participants by well over 50 percent. How did they do it and what are their secrets?
While these highly- adept forecasters come from various backgrounds, they have certain traits in common: they are philosophically cautious and humble. They are comfortable with numbers but not always math whizzes. They are pragmatic and capable of considering diverse points of view — “open minded.” They are intellectually curious and enjoy puzzles and mental challenges. And most especially, they are alert to personal bias and wishful thinking (”this virus will go away”). Tetlock stresses the need to think in terms of probabilities and to avoid guessing, and he believes that we can get better by monitoring our habits and practices.
By working on some of these traits, and reflecting on the accuracy of your predictive decisions, you sharpen your ability to accurately forecast your future.
4. Do you benchmark the best practices of leading innovators in order to improve?
Researching the book, Winning the Innovation Game, I interviewed 43 leading visionaries, futurists, Nobelists and discovered the one trait they all have in common —they are forward thinkers.
I flew to Memphis to interview Fred Smith, CEO and founder of FedEx corporation, one of the first of a new breed of forward thinking leaders to appear in the 1970s. I asked him how he got the (at the time) radical idea for the company. He explained that during the early 1970s, he was happily running a family-owned business at the Little Rock, Arkansas airport that refurbished aircraft, and he noticed how frequently they’d get calls from people frantic and wanting to get a package to another city overnight. But there was no way to accomplish that. Finally, Smith said, he decided to fill that need with a freight company for “time sensitive” parcels.
Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos, according to those who have, has figured out how to spend the bulk of his calendar on forward thinking. He delegates to trusted lieutenants the implementation of ideas. He spends most of his time examining how the world will look three, five and 10 years out. He is focused on baking in results for the third quarter two years from now, notes an article in Fortune. He sees his job as identifying and refining the Innovation Roadmap that will take the company from where it is today to where he wills it to be in the future — on time and on schedule.