All that’s required is a pen, a notepad and a brain

How to model the future without touching a computer.

by Scott Smith
Last Updated: 24 Feb 2020
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Food for thought

Look around anywhere today and you can find any number of management books, conferences, workshops and LinkedIn posts that push the case for going fully “digital,” or risk being left behind. 

Worse yet, a new wave of transformational technologies, from 5G networks, to artificial intelligence (AI), to autonomous mobility, continually pushes leaders to make big bets on these highly promising (and highly volatile) game-changing technologies, many without offering a clear view of the benefits and liabilities of their products or services. 

Which door, if any, do you choose?

Risk and uncertainty abound in just about any technology choice, from mundane upgrades to highly complex industrial refits. There are many questions to ask, beyond just which product fits my budget or company needs. 

Will my vendor of choice decide to walk away from all or part of my investment? Case in point: the recent dustup over Sonos’s ‘sunsetting’ (withdrawing support for) its older products

Will a developer downplay disastrous shortcuts? Boeing’s 737 Max will forever be a case study for this. 

Am I throwing good money after bad for something that may never work as advertised? Did someone mention the F-35?

Much of the decision support industry that provides so-called intelligence, insight and analysis to help managers make decisions about future technology decisions is decidedly ‘presentist’. 

Having spent a decade running research teams in IT analysis firms around the world, I’ve observed that few take big leaps into the unknown future, and prefer to suggest following the safe path of “X will be big. Everyone says so. Get in now. Pay us to tell you how”, based on backward-looking data.

I call these ‘flat-pack futures’, as they represent the equivalent of being offered the same riskless future anyone can get off the shelf at IKEA, and accepting the one-size-fits-all static analyses depicting generic technological futures. So long as your organisation or situation matches that of a plain vanilla case study, you’re golden.   

A lo-tech alternative

What’s been lost is the art of gaming it out for oneself - simply sitting down and putting pen to paper to evaluate some basic alternative scenarios for technology adoption. Obsession over data, sophisticated modeling, and predictive analytics of various flavours have overshadowed the simple task of sketching out “What Ifs” as simple, directional scenarios that provide a set of alternative outcomes for adopting or investing in a technology or not.

In the foresight field where I now practise, we have a simple tool known as “Four Futures,” developed by Jim Dator, a professor and director of the Hawaii Research Center for Futures Studies. 

In the late 1970s, Dator made the observation that all futures we depict in culture fall into four basic patterns: Growth - an increase in value or development from today, Transformation - a radical step change from today, Collapse - a serious decline or decay from today, or Discipline - roughly the same as today, with little change. 

Four Futures is the simplest kind of model, in that it allows you to imagine a future along one of four ‘macros’, if you will.

By sketching a simple description of a future that follows one of these paths, one can then carry out a basic thought experiment, asking, “What is the impact (financial, systemic, etc.) for my organisation in five or ten years if we invest in X technology?” 

So, as an example, if we go all-in for AI and it becomes transformative to our business, what’s the implication for us? Would it require new investments in other areas? Might it mean developing a larger workforce, or smaller? Without getting into numbers, you can imagine some basic answers to these questions.

Choose another of the four future pathways and ask the same question. What happens if we invest heavily in AI and the field subsequently stalls or collapses, experiencing another AI winter? Would this disrupt our business significantly? What would suffer from this unsuccessful strategy, or delayed ROI?  

In a world that is data-rich and thought-poor, we often miss the simple opportunities of starting with a sketch of a future on a notepad. Deep analysis can and should follow afterward. 

The next time you have a big or small tech investment decision ahead, take a moment, consider these four pathways, and how each of those futures might evolve. You may find some common options, or surface some bad assumptions that will facilitate your decision-making process quickly. And, it just might save you some hassle later on.

Scott Smith is founder and managing partner of Changeist, a foresight firm based in The Hague. He is the author of “How to Future: Leading and Sense-making in the Age of Hyperchange,” available from Kogan Page July, 2020

Image credit: SSPL/Getty Images

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