Inbox: The folly of forecasts

Back in the 1980s, people would fret over how to spend the extra spare time that technology was about to force upon them. It was considered such serious issue that Brisbane’s World Expo ’88 ran ‘leisure in the age of technology’ as its key theme. Looking back, it’s laughable idea, says Steve Tighe, and that is the conundrum of forecasting.
“The key for futurist,” he says, “is to detect ridiculous behaviour while it’s still considered acceptable.”
Tighe is speaker and business advisor on the future, strategy and innovation. He’s the man behind Australian company Chasing Sunrises. Its name, he says, is based on the observation that organisations will either look back and admire sunsets, or chase the sunrises of the future.
Tighe (say it like ‘tiger’ without the ‘r’) was in Auckland recently as guest speaker at the Randstad ‘Shaping the world of work’ breakfast series.
“You can’t predict the future,” he says, “but you can get better at picking the drivers and interpreting them.”
Many people see the future as an unknowable black hole, he says.
“So they either try not to think too much about it or rely heavily on statistics to interpret how the future might be.”
Instead, he says, there are methods for thinking more effectively about key changes that are shaping society and their implications for business.
Take the idea of cigarettes, he says. While the physical product has changed markedly little in the past 70 years (with the notable exception of the introduction of filter tips), societal values and perceptions have undergone seismic shift.
Greta Garbo once sexualised the notion of smoking, doctors promoted it and – in the ’70s – Marlboro advertised cigarettes as masculine and fresh.
Today, ignorant consumption is one of the more benign perceptions of smoking. At worst, smoking is seen as death sentence.
“The images displayed on cigarette packaging are as far removed from the sexy image of Greta Garbo as you can possibly get,” says Tighe.
The key to foresight lies in unlocking current perceptions, he says, and then starting to explore weaknesses and gaps in that thinking.
“Perceptions dictate what people are attracted to and what they reject, and are the precursors to how people behave.”
According to Tighe, the developed world cycles through traditional, materialistic and post-materialistic value sets. By understanding the underlying conditions that cause societies to slowly shift from one set to the next, it is possible to become sensitive to change and, by extension, develop strategy accordingly.
At pragmatic organisational level, he says, foresight boils down to three questions:
“First: what are your existing perceptions both as individuals and across society?”
This, he says, is the most overlooked part of planning, yet provides the cheapest and most effective way of thinking about the future.
“Next, try to understand how those perceptions might change in the future. Our perceptions are fluid. Things that we are attracted to in one context, we reject in another.”
Third, think about what different behaviour might result from those changed perceptions.
“Many organisations are fixated on measuring behaviour. But behaviour is downstream from our values and perceptions. If we can unlock these, we can start to anticipate how the future will be different.” M

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