Four Keys to Thinking About the Future

By: Jim Bruce
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The Tuesday Reading this week is “Four Keys to Thinking About the Future”, an essay by Jeffrey Gedmin that appeared on the Harvard Business School blogs.  Gedmin is President and CEO of the Legatum Institute in London. Prior to joining the Legatum Institute in 2011, he spent four years as President and CEO of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, where he oversaw the company’s strategy and broadcast operations in 22 countries.

Last December Gedmin convened a day-long symposium called “The Next Big Thing:  A Historical Approach to Thinking about the Future” in London.  From the event he concluded that some people are better at thinking about the future than others, and that if you want to be better, you should do four things:

1.  Enhance Your Power of Observation.  Always be working with the fullest data set possible.  Learn to listen carefully.  Given the plurality of voices and content, it’s often hard to distinguish the signal from the noise.  Harvard art historian Jennifer L. Roberts, Agassiz Professor of the humanities, routinely has her students go to the museum and spend three hours studying a single painting.  In doing so, students learn that real vision is not immediate and that it takes time to see and understand the details and relationships.  The same is true in our shifting environments.

2.  Appreciate the Value of Being (a Little) Asocial.  While it is extremely important that we build and maintain relationships – “relationships are the currency of the realm” – it’s also important that we avoid “group think” and the “echo box” by not having all of our relationships from the same community, people with the same training, the same background, the same interests that we have.  Make sure you have the relationships you need to “think outside the box.”

3.  Study History.  Mark Twain said that history often rhymes.  The rhymes may be about social patterns, the impact of technology, or how nations tend to adapt.  In a recent book 2013: In Search of the World Before the Great War, Charles Emmerson depicts civilization then as “interconnected and fragmented, cosmopolitan and chauvinistic, prosperous, decadent, and in danger of decline.”  Gedmin says that this sounds a lot like the situation of the West today.

4.  Learn to Deal with Ambiguity.  Today, we see a lot of grey out there – uncertainty as to which financial approach is best for our economy, how technology can best be used in higher education, etc.  There are no easy or binary choices today.

Gedmin closes his essay by saying “the wisest among us will always hedge our forecasts with qualifiers such as ‘will likely’ or ‘is apt to.’  Life is seldom linear and the best estimates frequently become undermined by those eternal ‘unknown unknowns.’  But don’t let them stop you from preparing for an uncertain future by learning more from the past and present.  Think long, think deep, think laterally – and brace yourself.”

So, as you continue forward, stop and ask “What will be the consequences of my being successful in my current/next endeavor?”  “What will my stakeholders and clients need to know/do to be successful in deploying my work?”

.  .  .  .    jim

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