Foresight’s Great Myth – “It is Rarely Worth Doing as It Is So Often Wrong”
There is a great myth in our field, so persistent and global that we can call it a “monomyth”, using the terminology of Joseph Campbell, the professor of comparative mythology who introduced the Hero’s Journey as a monomyth found in the literature and myth of all cultures.
The great myth is that foresight work is rarely worth doing, as it is so often wrong. We can call this the “Myth of Ineffectiveness”. This myth is sometimes voiced as an explicit belief, but more often it is implicitly held, assumed but not discussed, both by many of our clients and by lay observers of our profession. The great myth keeps people from even starting into foresight work.
Unfortunately, as our conscious efforts to produce foresight for ourselves, our teams, and our clients will almost always be of poor quality in the early stages as we are beginning our Hero’s journey, this myth functions as a self-fulfilling prophecy, keeping many individuals, teams, and cultures from doing foresight work. They never consciously begin their foresight production journey, or if they do, they quit far too early, before they’ve gone through the challenges, temptations, and abyss of poor foresight practice, on the way to becoming a serious practitioner.
Recall that foresight has four core practice types, Learning and the Three Ps. Learning involves accurately uncovering the past and present state of the relevant problem environment. Of the Three Ps, the first, probable futures, is about forecasting and prediction, and protection from predictable risks (intelligence, risk management). The second is about uncovering possible futures (alternatives, scenarios, experiments, wildcards). The third is about exploring preferable futures (strategies, plans, surveys, visions, agendas, competitive intelligence).
All four of these practice types deserve a strong defense from the myth of ineffectiveness. Each of us will be quite wrong at times when we try to explore probable, possible, or preferable futures. But because human beings fail the most often and the most glaringly at probable foresight, this is the area of our practice that is most deeply and commonly devalued as a result.
For some great histories of learning failures, see Liddell Hart’s classic and brief Why Don’t We Learn from History? (1971), Peter Senge’s The Fifth Discipline: The Art and Practice of the Learning Organization (1990), and Mui and Carroll’s Billion Dollar Lessons (2009). For some great prediction and forecasting failures, see Steven Schnaars Megamistakes (1989), Laura Lee’s Bad Predictions (2000), Nicholas Taleb’s Fooled By Randomness (2005), Bob Seidensticker’s Future Hype (2006), Adam Gordon’s Future Savvy (2008), and Doug Hubbard’s The Failure of Risk Management (2008). For examples of our failure to appropriately explore the scope of possible futures, see William Sherden’s excellent The Fortune Sellers (1994) and Taleb’s The Black Swan (2010). For examples of our failure to uncover and plan adaptively for preferable futures, see Henry Mintzberg’s The Rise and Fall of Strategic Planning (2000), Clay Christensen’s The Innovators Dilemma (2013) and Walter Kiechel’s The Lords of Strategy (2010).
It is alternately amusing, enlightening, and sobering to read such books. Amusing to see how wrong we can be, enlightening to realize how much we can improve, and sobering to realize how much suffering that poor learning, bad prediction and risk management, poor exploration of possibilities, and inadequate understanding and visualization of preferences (our teams, our customers and our competitors) have caused to individuals, organizations and societies over the centuries.
Besides limited foresight experience and poor practice methods, part of our foresight failure must be credited to unrecognized and unchecked emotional-cognitive biases. There are many ways we humans are fallible in our feeling and thinking. We’ll explore a long and incomplete list of these biases in Chapter 2. Fortunately, we can adjust for these biases, even if we can’t easily change them, by recognizing them in ourselves and others, and adjusting our processes and teams to oppose their damaging effects.
In any complex endeavor, such as exploring the future, there are myriad different ways to fail, and often only a few special ways to reliably succeed. This observation has been called the Anna Karenina principle. Leo Tolstoy opens Anna Karenina with the observation that happy families are all alike, and unhappy ones unhappy “each in their own (unique) way.” Happy families in any culture share certain universal features, yet there are also a very large number of kinds of dysfunction. Some of us get lucky, being born into happy families, unconscious of all the ways that things are going right for us. Most of us, however, are born into one or another kind of dysfunction that we must learn to see and adjust. Some of us, not easily able to see happy families as a type, have to study many different kinds of family dysfunction before we’re willing to recognize the few, universal ways that families can be particularly happy and adaptive, in almost any environment.
In biology, we see this in a long-known principle of population genetics, that most mutations in gene complexes on which past selection has been applied are deleterious (harmful) to the organism. Wherever evolutionary selection has created a complex, interdependent system, there are typically many ways to fail with random gene changes, and only a few ways forward, at any point in time, further improve adaptiveness.
This is a very useful insight we’ll explore deeper in our discussion of evolutionary and developmental change in Chapter 11 (Evo Devo Foresight). There are always many evolutionary paths in front of us, but only a few that will lead to further development of the complex system, whether it is an individual, a team, an organization, a society, or humanity as a whole.
But just because there are many ways to fail in foresight work, we must not turn away from it, becoming victims of the Myth of Ineffectiveness. The way through the Valley of Poor Foresight Practice is to become a good student of both the many kinds of failure types, and of those few special and long-selected ways to succeed. We’ll explore examples of foresight failure and success in this Guide. It is important that you don’t get discouraged by all the foresight failures you can see, and overlook all the foresight successes that you can create.
With respect to probable foresight, ignoring the other three core foresight skills for a moment, consider how easily we can fail by forecasting or predicting without good knowledge or proper models of the system in question. We can fail by straying into fields where we have developed inadequate conceptual expertise. We can fail by predicting from a position of known or unconscious bias. We can fail by neglecting to subject our forecasts and predictions to intense criticism from an appropriately skilled and cognitively diverse crowd. We can fail by forecasting or predicting only infrequently, thus never learning accuracy and conservatism. We’ll discuss these and other practice traps throughout this Guide, and in a summary form in Chapter 12 (Visions and Challenges in Foresight Practice).
Yet with all the ways to fail, the modern foresight field has been paid to engage in over seventy years of such efforts, with the emergence of the first foresight think tanks in the mid-1940s. We may still be historically young and undisciplined as a field, but we now have decades of conscious practice to draw on. Our best practitioners have gotten steadily better at foresight work, in every domain.
Never have there been more specialists with more models, implicit and explicit, doing forecasting and prediction in the world, never has there been a richer social, technical, and scientific environment for exploring possible and preferable futures, and never has more economic value been created by those individuals and organizations who have been best and fastest at seeing and getting strategic about what comes next. We’ll meet some of these folks in the pages to come.