Let’s start the year with a big scary dose of gloom and doom! That was the approach of a national media organization with their January 2nd leading headline story: “If you thought 2022 was bad, wait until you see what 2023 has in store for the economy.” It featured a photo of a despondent man staring glumly at a screen with his head in his hand. Happy New Year…
Here’s a snapshot of the two biggest problems with panicky headlines and terrifying click bait. Firstly, it feeds our bias for focusing on fear and what’s likely to go wrong. As I posted last week, our deep neuro-coding to look for, and obsess about, what’s wrong leads to serious misperceptions about whether our world is getting better or worse. We’re wired to worry.
Secondly, the article quotes a few prominent economists offering dire economic predictions. Yet another scary distortion. John Kenneth Galbraith, Canadian American economist, Harvard professor, advisor to U.S. presidents, and author of over four dozen books and one thousand papers summed it up well, “There are two classes of people who tell what is going to happen in the future: Those who don’t know, and those who don’t know they don’t know.”
Since the dawn of civilization, humans have wanted to see into the future. Seers, prophets, and fortune-tellers of all sorts have responded to — and preyed upon — our primal desire to reduce the uncertainty of what lies ahead. Wikipedia has a fascinating list of dates predicted for apocalyptic events that starts at 643 BCE and runs through hundreds of end-of-times predictions over the centuries. Or look at a shorter, more visual chart on doomsday forecasts predicting the end of the world (including revised dates — also wrong) published by The Economist in 2015.
One of the classic books about the forecasting fallacy was written by Dan Gardner. In Future Babble: Why Expert Predictions Fail — and Why We Believe Them Anyway (click for my review), Gardner features the research of Philip Tetlock when Tetlock was professor of psychology, business, and political science at University of California Berkeley. One of Tetlock’s studies examined forecasting inaccuracies using Google searches to determine the celebrity status of each of the 284 experts. Tetlock then correlated their level of fame to the accuracy of their forecast. His finding: “the more famous the expert, the worse he did.” Gardner also quotes Scott Armstrong, “an expert on forecasting at the Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania” on his “seer-sucker theory: No matter how much evidence exists that seers do not exist, suckers will pay for the existence of seers.”
I’ve published many blogs and articles on the dangers of forecasts and predictions. With the benefit of time and hindsight we can now laugh at these dire predictions. The January 2011 issue of my newsletter featured a selection of hilariously inaccurate predictions about 1993 made in 1893, a few funny failed predictions from the 1400s to 2000s, and a short list of insanely wrong comments (e.g. “there will never be another war in Europe,” “Social Media? That’s just for kids” and “the book is dead”).
Overcoming the Prediction Affliction
Harvard Business School professor, James Heskett, poses a vital question in “Should Managers Bother Listening to Predictions?” He points to all the uncertainty swirling around us today and observes, “we’ve always been certain about two things: (1) predictions are never accurate, and (2) plans are obsolete the moment they are made.”
Prediction addiction can be dangerous. It often leads to rigid plans and budgets. Highly effective leaders don’t get sucked into the forecaster’s folly. Great leaders build great organizations that quickly adjust to “black swan events.” They expect the unexpected and swivel to meet it.
A major focus of my writing and leadership/culture development career has been dealing with change. Here’s a few blogs/articles evolving from that work:
Organizational behavior reflects leadership team behavior. A team that wants to change “them” needs to start with a deep look in the mirror to change “us.” Includes six key findings from “The Agile C-Suite” drawn from a study of hundreds of organizations. Also outlines five steps to help leadership teams get their shift together.
Features a chart summarizing the vital leader shifts needed to move from rigidity to agility with:
- Internal Focus to Customer Focus
- Functional Accountability to Horizontal Teamwork
- Empowerment to Empartnerment
Many organizations implement “activity-frenzied” improvement efforts, lacking an integrated focus. They launch a series of programs bolted-on the side of operations rather than an integrated process of change and transformation. A chart shows the key differences.
HR leaders have come under fire for their lack of strategic focus and slow response to organizational needs. Some experts have said it’s “time to blow up HR and build something new.” Performance appraisals, coaching, learning and development, and teams especially need to be revamped.
To build agile, change adaptive organizations, the action of leading — taking initiative, seeing new possibilities, encouraging/supporting, reframing, harnessing the winds of change to grow forward, and overcoming helplessness with hopefulness — needs to be broadly shared by everyone everywhere, regardless of formal roles or positions. Are you underestimating and failing to engage key change drivers in your organization?
The best way to predict the future is to create it. We can tip the scales toward being a fortune teller by positively charging our magnetic field to build lives and organizations to survive — and even thrive — on unpredictability.