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Idea: The Key to Preparing for the Future Is to Stop Trying to Predict It

It’s that time again. Business publications and websites are filled with predictions for the coming year. Unfortunately, predictions are more about entertainment than enlightenment.

Making predictions is like performing a magic trick. The person making the prediction starts with a certainty—something that’s certain to take place. For example, there’s a major election next November. The predictor finds something that correlates to the certainty and comes up with a prediction like, “A candidate for Congress will be defeated due, in part, to an Instagram photo that goes viral.”

Predictions are concerned with a future certainty. And they are often correct because they are based on the broken watch principle. (Even a broken watch displays the correct time two times a day.)

Unfortunately, we live and work in a time of great uncertainty. Predictions may entertain us, but they don’t really provide us with the insight and understanding to actually prepare for and navigate times of unprecedented uncertainty—times of “black swan” events that no one anticipates, but that change everything.

For such uncertainties, it’s not predictions we need, but forecasting.

Forecasters look for hidden currents in the present that signal possible changes in the direction of industries, companies, the economy or the world at large, according to Stanford professor and futurist Paul Saffo. “The primary goal of forecasting,” he says, “is to identify the full range of possibilities, not a limited set of illusory certainties found in a prediction.”

Insight for marketers: Those who are trying to grow their companies often hope that wisdom can be found in the certainty of an expert’s prediction. But the path to future success is filled with uncertainty.

Helping your company navigate to success requires you to map the uncertainties you face. Only then will you understand that embracing uncertainty is where opportunity is found.

(The last 2015 issue of Idea Email will be sent on Tuesday, December 22, and will include our forecast for 2016.)

Photo: Thinkstock