Futurists, What are they good for?

An article was published today in the Sydney Morning Herald about futurists:

Grappling with the day after tomorrow – Futurists are struggling with mixed fortunes in their field of commerce.

I was interviewed for the piece in August last year and am mentioned in passing via a quote about my work from one of my key clients, the YMCA. The article starts off :

“Soothsayers, pundits, fortune tellers and a long history of failures have given predictions a bad name. So why do otherwise intelligent people continue to stake their profession on predicting the future?”

and continues in a similar vein. I would like to take issue with several points made in the article. I encourage you to go and read the whole article so you can judge for yourself if my comments are made in context:

1/ “Australian futurists reckon their chosen field is moving from the kooky fringe to the commercial mainstream”

I would be very surprised if any of the professional futurists mentioned in this article would consider the field as being regarded as kooky. However the article is written in a way that implies that. I would certainly agree that there are kooks and charlatans who try and predict the way things will be. My advice to clients and audiences who ask what the future of a certain industry might be in ten years is that I will guarantee only one thing : “that such a view will be wrong” That does not mean it is not useful to think through what the future might be. It is just that in a  complex and fast moving world long term predictions mostly don’t work. I have written and spoken a fair bit on the fallacies of forecasting. If you are interested you can read more on this by going to:

How to pick a good Futurist from a snake oil salesman

2/ “BHP Billiton, Telstra, Westpac, Western Power, MLC, Foster’s Group, BNP Paribas Australia and Sara Lee are among scores of companies named as clients on futurists’ websites, though in many cases this may mean only that they have had a futurist in as a guest speaker……………Inquiries to several other firms about their engagement of futurists yielded coy responses, though Telstra confirmed it engaged futurists ”from time to time to assist with various areas of our work”. Colliers International, St George Bank and the NRMA were among companies listed as clients on futurists’ websites that professed no corporate memory of it when contacted.

I have not worked with any of these clients so this does not refer to me specifically. Our work is divided roughly into about 1/3 speaking engagements, 1/3 short consulting engagements, and 1/3 longer strategy engagements which may last up to about 18 months. It seems like sloppy “gotcha” journalism to call a very large company and ask for their response on a particular project. The spokesperson has no interest in following up such a request diligently and the process seems designed to get the answer that was written rather than to properly assess worth of the foresight practitioners involved.

3/ “Those who do admit to working with futurists speak of the benefits in vague terms”

As I am referred to in the paragraph after this statement I thought I should respond in more detail. As the work we do is primarily focused on assisting others to think differently about the future it is less able to be quantified as compared to a change management process,or a sales training program, or a software delivery project. I often think about a presentation that I saw Edward de Bono do a few years ago where he likened the process of innovation in ideas being like telling a good joke. Before you tell a joke the punchline and the thread of the story are not obvious. After the joke has been told they are. Helping people in finding new possibilities is a bit like that. Once the idea or the strategies have been created they often seem obvious in retrospect and therefore allocation of credit in a quantitative way is impossible. We worked for a client last year in generating a wide range of new possible ideas given possible changes in the future. When these were presented to the CEO by the senior manager who had worked with us he said ” I could have thought of these”. To his credit the senior manager had the courage to respond “but you didn’t did you, and if it is that easy give me two more right now”. To which there was no reply.

I come from a background in science and research and farm animal production ( I have a First Class Honours Degree in Vet Science and a Bachelor of Animal Science for research into poultry diagnostic tests). In addition I grew up in a household that was steeped in analytical processes and measurement given my father has a PhD in Metallurgy, one of my brothers is an engineer and the other holds an MBA. In all of that background and work analytical processes and measurement of results were vital, and in fact it was one of the things that attracted me to the fields I became involved in. However the training I received in doing my Masters Degree in Strategic Foresight widened my horizons and my skill sets and we have to recognise that not all things are measurable in the same way. We should always seek to measure results but we must also accept that quantitative measurement of some things is impossible. My key measurement of our success is that apart from some Google Adwords advertising as a conference speaker we do no advertising. All of our work comes from word of mouth and references from existing clients. That would not happen if we were not providing value to those clients.

4/ “The sweet spot on which futurists depend for most of their living is 10 to 20 years hence. It is seen as a comfortable psychological space in which the futurist’s best stab at where things are headed is accepted as plausible and the client can plan to make the necessary changes”

I can only speak about the work that we do but 10-20 years tends to be too far away for practical value in my view. Our work has changed over the last decade to be far more focused on how do you create a strategy which deals with the fact that forecasting does not work and that “best stabs” are somewhat useless. You can read more on our approach by looking at:

How to make Strategy SEXy

5/ “Susan Oliver, the only Australian futurist invited to Kevin Rudd’s Australia 2020 Summit, insists on the case for futurist approaches but says it is getting harder in practice. ”I am not sure that we can engage in long-term planning because the world is changing too quickly in unpredictable ways,” she says. By this logic, the futurists who see rapid change as their meal ticket may be confusing their preferred with their probable futures”

Given the problems around the future summit I was probably lucky not to be invited. Our work centres around helping people deal with that rapid change and our job is to use tools which are appropriate to what is happening, not pick the tools first. This last statement in the article is a bit of a smartarse one liner that might good for a laugh but demeans what should have been a decent critique of the field of futures studies and futures consulting. It is a shame that such a decent critique did not take place.

I remember sitting in a room of graduates when a well known international futurist came to visit Swinburne University. There was a lot of bemoaning by the graduates that “we are not listened to enough and we should be because we do great work.” In response after listening for a while I said ” well maybe no-one listens to us because we are not that good at what we do?” There was complete silence in the room and the discussion went back to complaining about the lack of foresight and long term thinking in the community and with clients. Putting that aside (which has some truths to it)  I would like to make some contributions to the critique:

1/ I think there are problems because the role/job of foresight practitioners/futurists is too ill defined. The range of what we do merges into what people would define as strategy or management consultants. Unfortunately that is probably not going to change much because I am firm believer that we have to continue to change and evolve in relation to the needs of clients and the community. If you are a vet people mostly know what you do. If you are a futurist it is never going to be the case. We just have to suck it up.

2/ I think there is far too much emphasis by futurists on forecasts or in the case of the approach described by Phil Ruthven in the article on long term trends and historical cycles. People such as author Jim Collins (Good to Great, etc) make a tremendous amount of money analysing companies historical performance and then distilling the practices that supposedly achieved that great performance. The trouble is that by the time that data is collected and analysed things have changed. There have been several analyses of performance of the target companies after the studies have been done and many companies highlighted as great actually under perform in subsequent periods (anyone interested in looking that this further should read The Halo Effect by Phil Rosenweig).To be fair on the forecasting front the SMH article did mention Philip Tetlock’s work on forecasting which is a great critique of the problems with forecasting.

3/ There is a tendency (and I would include me in this category) not to challenge clients enough. In the interests of maintaining consulting income or with the flimsy excuse that “we will get in their first and then change after the first lot of work gives us entry” we do not push people to think hard enough to think differently and challenge the status quo view of the future. We are trying to change that by having an internal business model rule where we intend to reject about 1/3 of the clients that approach us on the basis that they are not pushing hard enough to think differently and are not willing to be challenged. We also push in our keynote presentations -see The Provoker for a description of that style. In recent feedback at a conference I was scored just above 8 out of 10. Analysis showed that almost 1/3 of the audience gave me 10 out of 10 but 10% gave me 1 out of 10. That is a response we actually look to achieve because unless some people reject an idea or a way of thinking it is not radical enough to move others to action. The profession needs more  of that I think. Anyway that is enough of a rant from me, I would be interested in other people’s point of view

Paul Higgins