Predicting the Future by Reading the Present

Posted 05.24.2010

Worldmap1 Thirty years ago, John Naisbitt took the publishing world by storm with his book, Megatrends. It was a best seller for two years and sold nine million copies. Naisbitt identified ten big trends for the future by doing a deep analysis of current news stories and looking for the patterns within them. It was a classic case of what Harvard leadership strategist Ron Heifetz calls getting off the dance floor and onto the balcony. From that “pull the lens back” perspective, Naisbitt correctly called trends such as moving from an industrial to an information economy, from technology being forced into use to being pulled into use and moving from hierarchies to networks. All of that sounds like conventional wisdom now, but remember he was making those calls 30 years ago.

Naisbitt came to mind a few days ago when I was reading a column in the Financial Times titled, “Rising Powers Do Not Want to Play by the West’s Rules.”  In writing about Brazil’s and Turkey’s efforts to resolve the concern over Iran’s development of enriched uranium, the author, Phillip Stevens, cited a report from the U.S. National Intelligence Council called Global Trends 2025. I had not heard of the report, so I looked it up and downloaded it (that information-based, technology pull economy that Naisbitt predicted at work). If for no other reason than it’s a great example of outside-in thinking and analysis, I encourage you to download the report and take a look.

The executive summary begins with a table of “Relative Certainties” and their “Likely Impact.” For instance, the emergence of a global multipolar system likely means that “a single international community of nation-states will no longer exist” and new players will bring new rules. Or, for example, absent a dramatic change in employment conditions, the increase in the youth population in countries such as Afghanistan, Nigeria, Pakistan and Yemen will lead to continued instability.

The process outlined in Global Trends 2025 raises some interesting opportunities and questions for leaders. When you step up to the balcony and look at your organization and its operating environment with a broader lens, what relevant certainties do you see? What are the likely impacts of those relative certainties? What are your options for responding? Who else needs to be involved in the conversation and what role should they play in shaping the future?