The Problem of Prognostication

“By 1930, naval arms limitation treaties were in effect, the Great Depression was underway, and the defense planning standard said ‘no war for ten years.’ Nine years later World War II had begun.” – Lin Wells

I’m sure we’ve all heard various misattributed sayings about the challenges of making predictions.

I’m a big believer in the uncertainty of future events – be they black swans, outputs of inherently chaotic systems, products of complexity, vagaries of humanity, etc. That’s one reason why my past reading includes books about managing uncertainty (e.g., Obliquity – Why Our Goals are Best Achieved Indirectly), analyzing complex issues to gain decision advantage (e.g., The HEAD Game – High Efficiency Analytic Decision-Making and the Art of Solving Complex Problems Quickly), the role of luck in success (e.g., Success and Luck – Good Fortune and the Myth of Meritocracy), and so on.

Near the end of Superforecasting, there’s a terrific example that really illustrates the futility of trying to perfectly predict the future: a memo sent by Donald Rumsfeld to George W. Bush and Dick Cheney, that references the insights of Lin Wells.

 

 

Personally, that memo was preaching to the choir; I found it extremely powerful and sobering, and I’ve already shared it directly with several folks.

Why? I think we’re often fooled into thinking that the future unfolds like clockwork: nice and predictable, in a classic Newtonian way. In reality, things are much fuzzier, and events catch us off guard.

My belief in the impact and inevitability of uncertainty doesn’t mean I think we’re helpless in the face of it – you’ll note that I’ve also amassed quite a collection of books on leadership, communication, etc. You see, I believe that adaptability is a critical quality of great leaders, and I want to have an arsenal of tools at my disposal and patterns in my memory…so when uncertainty strikes, I can think on my feet and effectively communicate.

We can accept uncertainty and still prepare for it; in fact, it’s only by accepting uncertainty that we will meaningfully prepare for it.

Let’s not be fooled by leaders and organizations with their lies that only they can predict or control the future: the truth is that no one can do either; the best we can do is be quick on our feet and agile of mind when things unfold.

Lee Brooks is a technology marketer based in the high-tech hub of Waterloo, Ontario, Canada.

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Posted in Leadership
2 comments on “The Problem of Prognostication
  1. […] the timing comes on the heels of several posts on this blog about the challenges of and best practices for prognostication, so I was in the right frame of mind – skeptical, but […]

  2. […] and Superforecasting caught my eye when it was released. I’ve noted elsewhere in this blog that I recognize the general unpredictability of the future, but that doesn’t mean I don’t believe it isn’t prudent to quantify the […]

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