When thinking about the future, why are we wrong so often?

This article was originally published on February 9, 2017 and written by Rodney J. Johnson.

There is an enormous amount of value in being able to see the future. If we can see what is coming around the corner, we can make better decisions, prepare better, and get a jump on our competitors. Considering how much money there is to be made, and how much advantage to be gained by being able to see the future, you’d think we’d work harder on being better at it. The problem is that there isn’t much to practice. Predicting the future is more art than science. It requires a god’s eye view, encompassing all the data available, and we rarely have that.

What are some of the mistakes we make when we think about the future? Why do we get blindsided? Why do we fail to see new products and opportunities before they are obvious to everyone else? The reasons we’re so blind are a mixture of both mental mistakes and lack of information.

Reason 1: We think linearly.

We think linearly but innovation doesn’t happen linearly. We think in terms of what we already know and extrapolate that knowledge forward into the future. That means we think in terms of improvements of what we already know: faster, better, cheaper, more reliable. Linear thinking is evolutionary thinking, not revolutionary thinking. It doesn’t involve imagining what we don’t already see being used around us.

True innovation doesn’t happen linearly. It happens exponentially. Better results come not from incremental improvements, but from complete changes in paradigms. We go from the horse and carriage to the automobile, from the command line to the graphical user interface, from audio tapes and CDs to MP3s. We go from analog to digital, from physical to intangible.

Reason 2: Revolutions are emergent phenomena.

Revolutions can’t be found when looked for. They can’t be extrapolated from existing products, use cases, and customer requests. They emerge on their own as a result of a variety of inputs and influences coming together.

Rodney J. Johnson
President, Erudite Risk
Founder Resilience Cloud

Rodney J. Johnson is currently President of Erudite Risk, Co-Founder of the KBLA, and Founder of Resilience Cloud. He has spent most of his work life in Asia. Working in both the IT and the risk management sectors, he has been based in Korea and Singapore, while running companies with direct operations in Korea, China, Singapore, and India. He is the former country manager of a Korean subsidiary of a Silicon Valley operating systems start-up acquired by Samsung SDS, Korea’s largest systems integration company. Following that acquisition, he served as the chief operating officer of the new Samsung SDS–affiliated company that resulted from the acquisition.

Rodney J. Johnson is also a former technology analyst, reporting on Asian technology issues, and served as an intelligence analyst in the US Army. Over the last 13 years, he has led or been involved with more than 2000 risk management and security-related cases for multinational companies in Asia, as well as directly consulted for more than 30 of the Fortune 100. He has a BA in economics and mathematics and an MBA from the University of New Mexico’s Anderson School of Management.What customer industries is your company strongest in?

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That means they are hard to predict unless we see all of the different parts and imagine the combinations ahead of time. Emergent properties are found all over. The smell and taste of a freshly baked cake are emergent properties: they can’t be found through an examination of any one or more of the cake’s ingredients’ properties. Consciousness is an emergent property. It can’t be found in the physical brain.

Autonomous vehicles are a revolution that came about not through improving anything related to existing automobile technology, but through the convergence of various technologies and influences that those concentrating on improving existing cars would never even have been interested in. People working outside of the auto industry, on their own problems, for their own reasons, all unintentionally and unknowingly, were creating the technology necessary to make an autonomous vehicle work.

Reason 3: Something unrelated changes.

Changes away from our industry or unrelated to the core technology we make use of suddenly make new things possible that were not possible just yesterday. While no innovation was done by us, or no improvements or changes focused on our area of interest were made, changes elsewhere now put us at risk.

Often, changes to completely unrelated technologies lead to widespread innovation as the new technology is applied in different industries. Any technological advancement may have applications in your industry, therefore, change and revolution can come from anywhere. That makes change exceedingly hard to predict.

The rise of social media, pervasive web tracking, and big data techniques have led to a variety of solutions to problems that couldn’t be solved before because we just didn’t have enough data. Social media and the web were not invented in order to create and collect data but it turns out they both do those functions incredibly well. We now have more data than we ever could have dreamed of and are, therefore, able to apply that data everywhere from psychology to artificial intelligence to economics.

Reason 4: We have mental sacred cows.

People have trouble letting go of what they are familiar with. One of the main reasons is because the ideas we are used to are successful ideas; they have always worked for us. They are proven. Why would we want to kill them off or seek alternatives?

The inability to see the problems successful ideas don’t solve is why we don’t search for better ones. The old ideas work well enough for us and we fall in love with them. Falling in love with ideas is potentially fatal, because love is blind.

Reason 5: Revolutionary technology is usually not pretty in the beginning.

New things have kinks to be worked out. New things have bugs. New things don’t quite fit into our old ecosystems. They look unpolished and clunky. That leaves us squinting at them and wondering where the attraction is. So, we dismiss them as not important, not relevant, or not useful. We believe they will never make a real impact on our industry, our company, and our customers.

But new things don’t always stay infants; they grow up, become mature, strong, and powerful. By that time, it is too late to see that these new things are going to hurt us. By that time, they are often wielded by industry newcomers, coming to eat our lunch.

The Next New Thing: Chatbots
So it is with chatbots - the biggest thing you’ve never heard of.

Chatbots are an application of a variety of technologies that are converging in a way that is going to be supremely disruptive to all businesses, B2C or B2B. Chatbots are a simmering revolution that is expected to hit a rolling boil in 2017. Chatbots utilize Natural Language Processing to interact with users in a natural and largely free-flowing way. They can be deployed in messaging apps, mobile devices, IoT devices, cars, and pretty much anywhere else. Since these artificially intelligence digital assistants channel requests of all kinds through themselves, users don’t use other channels. Users won’t need any other channels. That’s a horrifying thought to most everyone involved with attracting customers, harnessing attention, and creating engagement, which is basically everyone in business.

At 2017’s first KBLA Technology & Innovation Forum, on March 17, I’ll be talking about chatbots, web bots, personal digital assistants, and what they all mean to companies and their customers. I hope you can join us for this opportunity to learn about a real revolution coming right around the corner.

Erudite Risk

Erudite Risk offers risk management and security-related professional services for multinational companies operating in the Asia-Pacific region. With operations in India, Korea, and Singapore, Erudite Risk is ready to help you meet the challenges of Asia, the most dynamic and challenging business environment in the world.

Rodney J. Johnson is President of Erudite Risk. He has lived in Asia for most of his adult life, but still longs for good Mexican food.