How far into the future can you see with clarity?

Looking into the future

Last night I was driving home from work when I became rather annoyed by the driver of the car behind me. He (it must have been a bloke) was right up my rear end, clearly wanting to get past. I was in the outside lane of the dual carriageway, passing slower traffic to my left. In front of me was a queue, slowing down somewhat. But the chap behind was clearly in a hurry. After a while, he slid into the left-hand lane to try to overtake me on the inside, only to find that he could get nowhere as the traffic was slowing down. Quite apart from being a terrible driver, he was probably stressed out, with high blood pressure and shouting obscenities at me – “the slowcoach”.

Of course, had this twerp looked further ahead than my rear lights, he would have noticed that no matter which lane he was in, the traffic was slowing down, and nobody was going to make speedy progress. He would just have to put up with 60 miles per hour for a little while.

You see this kind of driving all the time. These “Type A” personalities who are in such a hurry to get somewhere they cannot look into the distance. They are merely interested in the here and now and consider nothing beyond. I suspect you smile at them as you arrive at the red traffic lights just a few seconds after they got there.

The inability to see into the future is not just the preserve of dreadful drivers. Taylor Swift’s ticket agency failed to see that millions of people would want to buy tickets to her concerts. Twice last year the website collapsed under the strain. Now, I’m no Taylor Swift expert, but I know she is rather popular. Failing to predict how many people would want to buy tickets meant the website was underpowered, leading to frustration and annoyance in customers, as well as the potential for lost sales.

Meanwhile, the Office for Budget Responsibility criticised the UK Government this week, saying that their financial predictions and plans were “worse than fiction”. Indeed, the British Government has no financial plan beyond March next year. True, they probably won’t be in power, but the departments, such as health, education, defence and so on, need to know what their financial future is going to be. They have to sign contracts with suppliers, taking them well beyond the next 14 months. The lack of financial forecasting by the Government makes the job harder for the various public bodies we all depend upon.

Predicting the future is essential for business. You need to forecast your likely sales. You need to work out your forthcoming expenditure. And you need to have an idea of where technology is going to take your sector in the years ahead. Otherwise, you live a hand to mouth existence, unable to plan effectively or deal with the competition. Many years ago, when my primary income was from writing, I used to go away for a week and stay in a holiday cottage where I could concentrate, uninterrupted. I would then plan my 12 months ahead and produce ideas that would take me into the year beyond that. If I didn’t have a future plan, how could I earn a living?

These days, though, planning for the future is tougher. If I had asked you last week, I doubt you would have said that it would be possible to use a 3D printer to create functioning brain tissue. It’s probably not going to be long before we can create a brand-new working human brain with no mum and dad. Technological changes like this are rapid and too difficult to think about. Then just add in the political and economic turmoil that is everywhere and thinking about the future becomes very tough. This means that psychologically, we want to seek the safety of the present – something I wrote about last year. But if we do not predict the future, we’ll be like that stupid car driver behind me last night, not achieving anything.

It is possible to make good and accurate predictions about the future. In the book Super-forecasting, you can discover that people can be trained to make better predictions. You may not become “Mystic Meg”, but you can discover how to be better at analysing the future. As Forbes magazine said last year, Long Run Business Projections are Easier than they Seem.

In business, we rarely look ahead as far as we need. All too often, we focus on the next quarter’s results, or what we need to do over the coming few weeks to meet our deadlines. That’s like being in the current government or running a ticketing website that doesn’t realise the extent of a pop star’s popularity.

Perhaps we should all do what I used to do. Take time out from the day-to-day business, go “off radar” for a few days and think seriously about the future. Only by focusing like this on forecasting and planning will we be able to see the future with any clarity.

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