The Tens: Don’t Trust A Futurist

The Tens: Don’t Trust A Futurist


There is no data about the future

So far physicists have not discovered a way to transport data from the future—not in a lab nor in the parlor room of a soothsayer. Today’s quants and stats ninjas aren’t predicting the future, they are analyzing the present and hoping that tomorrow is pretty much like today. Disruptions along a number of dimensions can make today’s data irrelevant: consider MySpace growth forecasts prior to the introduction of Facebook, or oil futures before an economic tailspin. Studying today’s data will provide plenty of insight into the past, but it won’t necessarily apply to the future.


Some trends aren’t trends

The late evolutionary biologist Stephen J. Gould argued against the evolutionary ladder and for an evolutionary bush, where accidents and serendipity play as much of a role in evolution and extinction than does the competition of genetics. Gould’s lesson from the fossil record was one of adaptation. Futurists often point to trends that disrupt and dislocate rather than identifying adaptive opportunities, which may prove the best kind of competitive differentiation.


Even real trends may turn out to be irrelevant

Trends without forces and caveats are useless. No trend is independent of other forces. Futurists who deterministically state a trend without qualification may not be showing their work, or they may just be making an unfounded assertion. In either case, presenting a trend without its context misleads and endangers the potential trend watcher who may well follow that trend needlessly over a cliff.


Cycles are an Illusion

Cycles are necessary in nature, they may not be so in history, because unlike natural cycles with underlying laws, history is the reflection of human intervention where cycles can as easily be recognized and broken, as acknowledged and followed. If your futurist forecasts tomorrow as the next peak in a waveform that has repeated itself throughout history, probe with deep skepticism because skepticism is the tool that best reveals flaws in reasoning.


The Futurist Has a Bias

Everyone has a bias about something. Just by writing this, I have revealed several biases: a bias against trends, for bushy evolution and skepticism of historical cycles, and the use of data to forecast future behavior. Make sure you understand your futurist’s biases.


They are Historically Wrong

Even Warren Buffett can be wrong. He bought Conoco Philips too high and Dexter shoes because he saw a differentiated future for them that didn’t exist. Most futurists and forecasters are wrong over the long term, which is why it is better to be diligent and purposeful. Create an uncertainties framework and monitor it. Paying attention in the present, and taking appropriate short term action informed by strategy, is more important than forecasting.


They don’t expose their thinking

Your math instructor probably insisted that you show your work to prove you knew how to solve a problem. Futurists often show flashy images of emergent things that exist today, along with cool sketches, videos and animations of things that might happen tomorrow. They rarely discuss how they challenge their own biases, or the alternatives to their often overly deterministic assertions.


Probabilities are for bookies, not futurists

If futurists were accurate, they would be at the race track, not in the boardroom. As I have said for years, a futurist has the advantage of never being wrong today. And unlike bookies, they don’t even have to be right tomorrow. Probabilities about the unknown help set payouts, but they are not useful when selecting among futures or future impacts. When you don’t know, anything is equally likely to happen. This may be constrained by configuration, e.g., a baseball team with a man on base is more likely to score than one without a man on base, but the configuration does nothing to forecast the batter’s performance. Even the best models of the future don’t include enough relationship data to predict how an action today will manifest itself tomorrow.


They Don’t Admit Mistakes or Offer Lessons Learned

A futurist that shares mistakes and lessons is more honest than one who does not. The best way to look into the future is through a range of possibilities and spending time exercising your options. And then watching diligently.


They Over Simplify

The world is messy. The one thing we can predict about the future is it will be messy too—full of complex inter-relationships, forces, and influences that make it difficult to slice through to create a meaningful picture, let alone, a forecast. Honest thinkers about the future embrace the messiness.

For more serious insights on strategy click here.

Daniel W. Rasmus

Daniel W. Rasmus, Founder and Principal Analyst of Serious Insights, is an internationally recognized speaker on the future of work and education. He is the author of several books, including Listening to the Future and Management by Design.


    comments user


    Daniel I’d be more than happy for you to come and sit on a session I facilitate to see that some futurists spend considerable time challenging people’s perceptions of what is likely or even plausible by testing the assumptions they make.

    Very few futurists that I know of rely on forecasting as a preferred tool with many of them using forecasts as the core basis for interrupting the locked in thinking often present. As for trends, they are perhaps more in vogue and even then, a number of us recognise them for what they are – historically discerned patterns that are but one potential way for someone to form an opinion of future potential. Their utility is open to question based on context.

    Others utilise CLA to identify and unpack the bias present not only in the futurist, but on the room in general. It should be readily discernable to people that if a person has a reliance toward the use of any particular methodology, they are showing clearly their bias.

    Much of what you detailed would be placed in the ‘pop’ futurism basket – thin, poorly supported but often ‘sexy soundbites’ that are as you say ‘brief’ designed to attract attention. But leading with ‘brief’ to attract attention falls into the trap identified by the Chinese saying ‘seeking fame is like a pig seeking slaughter’

    Personally I think your article has done a great disservice to many high quality in depth practitioners in the futures field who spend considerable time assisting clients of all types in all industries uncover the flaws in their thinking so that they might enhance that thinking for future needs.

    Like the soundbite specialist futurists with their sexy clips and snazzy sayings, ‘brief’ doesn’t cut it when you hit the real world

    Which is why many of the better futurists don’t do brief

      comments user


      And I make the same offer to you for my scenario planning class. I understand your positions, though this is less about fame and more about dialog. I have written books and academic papers on this topic and they have not generated this much conversation.

      As for “pop futurism,” that is what most people are exposed to and it is what many companies want because of their desire for expediency. We may well do good work, but almost every session I am asked to engage in ends up bounded tightly by time and budget and I have to work very hard to provide enough sense of the messiness and uncertainty of the future to satisfy my integrity while meeting client expectations.

      And to your last point, I think we need to learn to do brief but meaningful, given the business climate, or the good work that we all do runs the risk of being irrelevant because those in power don’t perceive that they have the time to work through the deep issues over long periods of time, nor do they believe that anything that looks out 2, 5 or ten years has any relevancy in their fast pace personal and business lives. I met with a client yesterday who plans in 2-week increments. I talked about how different perspectives on the future could inform they way his team considers the flexibility of their design choices, but the focus is on incremental adaptation and execution, not on long-range strategic planning. And like many I encounter today, I hear the phrase, “yes, that would be nice, if only we had the time.”

      So my note that has generated so much ire among futurists isn’t really directed at those who do this well and with attention to detail and recognition of the messiness, it is meant as a caution for those firms that are considering bringing in people who violate those ten principles–and given this discussion, I don’t think the long range planning discipline has done a good job of positioning its value in today’s economy. Perhaps that is a discussion we should be having among ourselves.

    comments user

    Marcus Barber

    Hard to tell if this article is tongue in cheek or a school boy essay, but given we can reply to an email address of ‘serious insights’ I suspect it must be tongue in cheek, for there’s not a serious understanding from which to deduce a serious insight.

    And that said, let’s see if we can discern any insight from what is offered as flaws in ‘futurists’ (of which there are many, even with the real futurists clearly not considered in this article):

    First – if there’s no such thing as data about the futures (pt.1) how can a futurist make mistakes? (pt.9)

    Second – apparently the only tool futurists use is forecasting (pt.6) yet we are informed that it is the futurist that ‘oversimplifies’ (pt. 10). Best not tell anyone about Values Systems, Causal Layered Analysis, Scenarios, Gaming; Backcasting or a myriad of other tools, lest anyone think futures is more than simplistic assessments

    Three – Apparently futurists have biases (pt. 5), unlike the author of this piece perhaps, and so cannot be considered part of the human species.

    Four- futurists don’t expose their thinking (pt. 7) despite holding onto apparent biases (pt. 5) and using cycles (pt. 4) trends (pt. 2) probabilities (pt.6) and forecasts (pt.6).

    Thankfully I hold onto the suggestions contained in the article of maintaining a degree of skepticism (pt 4), for if not, I’d take the article at face value and might consider it as being a serious critique of futures work, rather than the tongue in cheek (or was it school boy essay?) offering to potential clients of the author

      comments user


      I appreciate the critique and the post is, as I have said in other responses, driving dialog. Given the form of these brief “tens” that I write, they offer consumable advice with deeper discussion available in other papers, of which there are many many pages on my website.

      So let me take on your points. People facilitating futures conversations or sharing “futures” insights can make mistakes, and that is related to process. If they don’t share their thinking, then they can’t admit their mistakes. The two are related. Again, apologies for the form, but the form does not invalidate the observation. I regularly talk about continuous learning and give examples. This dialog will be an example in the future (which I can predict. In my next presentation I will be talking about this dialog).

      I agree with all of the tools you discuss. I know that many practitioners use them. Some do not, and some share high level data without even referencing these tools. Yes, I am perhaps guilty here of oversimplifying these observations which is why I am spending time writing responses.

      Futures do have bias. I suggest that those biases be identified by either the analyst or the person hiring them. I see my role as helping people think beyond their biases, so my processes for confrontation of assumptions. No matter what tool I use, or anyone uses, to create a forecast, if the receivers of that forecast are not open to hearing it, the message is less effective, perhaps lost. I think clients need a process, like scenarios, that helps them see problems from forced perspectives, with the biases clearly documented in the process. And again, high level overviews don’t do justice to this kind of context setting and therefore mislead the audience.

      On four, I don’t see those as ways of exposing thinking. Biases often remain articulated. Cycles are an easy way to say that the past will come along again without proving it will come along again. Get a few data points to line up and tell people to be patient. I don’t buy that approach. Trends, again, are observations, often observations with little data that is then labeled as a trend. Read Gould on how trends are misused. Probabilities. If we take premise one, which is there is no data about the future, probabilities show thinking, but I find it misguided thinking as people tend to gravitate toward high probability events. If you are trying to challenge assumptions you want to provide people with equal weight contexts that force them out of their complacency to confront their assumptions and their confirmation biases. And to return to the point, you can’t have a probability about something that doesn’t have data. People can decide how plausible something may be to them and then choose how much they want to invest, especially if they are using futures to continually challenge their strategic assumptions, but outside of short time periods, research shows that predictions (beyond a month in the case of interest rates) are useless, regardless of skill or experience. So saying one future event is more probable than another offers false insight. That is different than doing present analysis that suggests some future action based on analysis (such as analyzing terrorist chatter to “predict” an attack from megabytes of data hinting at, or explicitly discussing, plans for such an attack).

      And forecasts. Forecasts can be as easy as use a octopus. Paul did not forecast FIFA games, he got lucky and his luck ran out when he died. Forecasts should have characteristics derived from this list, e.g., a range of possible outcomes, a background on how they were derived, and what, if any, evidence enforces such a prediction, along with contrary evidence (which makes it a forecast for an uncertainty given a set of circumstances, not a forecast under any circumstances).

      And to your last point, perhaps a bit too brief for such a big topic, but in the net world, people lead with brief, which gets attention and drives dialog, and then the ones really interested can get down to discussing the issue in exchanges like this.

      And it is midnight on the Pacific Coast so I apologize that I’m not going to go back and edit this comment, which may, I predict, include some typos.

    comments user

    David Smith

    You clearly have strong views about futurists. My one observation of your negative opinion is that you perceive all futurists as the same, using the same methods, same pronouncement style, same arrogance at never being wrong, same not showing their workings etc.

    In this you are not right. It is a diverse community with people coming from very different backgrounds and experiences, seeking to deliver different value for their clients and delivering their assistance to those that engage them in a variety of ways.

    It would have been well if you could have considerd this possibility before you made your pronouncements. You’re welcome to your view of course but the very arrogance you critisize you also seem to harbour.

      comments user


      Thank you for your perspective. Blog posts are intended to inform as well as drive dialog. I don’t disagree with you, and was purposeful about not saying “all futurists” in my post. I have seen far too many situations where “futurists” exhibit these behaviors, as I outlined in my previous comment response. This post is about caution. I do futurists work. I keep this list to hit myself over the head when I start tending to a singular point of view or a forecast that does not include alternatives. People who hire futurists need to do the same, to ask these questions and challenge the person or company they are hiring to show their work, to reveal their thinking. It is all too easy to make thinking about the future into a packaged delivery with industrial age overtones. We all know that those of use who think about the future are usually ahead of where our clients are and almost anything we say will seem new or orthogonal. We must avoid the trap ourselves of delivering the same set of trends in a tired PowerPoint presentation even though it may be expedient, cost effective and profitable. It is also less than our clients deserve.

      And yes, people hire people for different reasons and have different expectations. When thinking about the future, I do reveal a bias toward robust, challenging thinking. If a client doesn’t want that, then I’m probably not the person they want to hire. I know there are a lot of people who think the way I do, and who use other methods to create robust explorations of future possibilities and to construct forecasts. But again, the client sponsor may not know what they should be thinking about when hiring some one to help them think about the future. This list provides a terse, concise starting point for a meaningful evaluation of practitioners. If it does nothing but help a few company’s make better partnering decisions, then it has achieved its goal.

      I don’t challenge wantonly. I have been working in the world of long range forecasting and strategy for 30 years. As a practitioner myself, I want to make sure my potential clients understand what they should be asking of me, and what they should be expecting me to deliver. I would be happy to be challenged by this list in an RFP situation because I know my client has done their homework and they know what they want, and that the engagement will likely be a productive one.

      I appreciate your passion for the topic and your willingness to take the time to add to the dialog. All the best.

    comments user


    even the best laid plans do not work, what we might think will happen in the future might never even happen…interesting thoughts!

    comments user


    I have engaged in a bit of side banter from futurists who worry that this is a bit of a given for them. For people engaged deeply in futures work, I would not disagree. There are many “futurists” however, that follow trends superficially, and are hired as futurists, often more than the more cerebral researchers because they deliver flashy talks with videos and disturbing dystopian images or bright, comforting ones.

    I agree, that to some futures researchers, these are obvious (though I don’t think people can research the future, they can only research the present and the past as well as methods for speculating on the future). This is mainly written for corporate clients who hire “futurists” to give heart thumping reviews at conferences, or worse, at internal product development meetings. And many of the people who fall into this classification of futurists don’t follow these principles. They pontificate as though their views were handed down from some deterministic deity with a guarantee of them coming to fruition. I’ve been on the stage with some of these guys, and they don’t like me following them as a skeptic more interested in helping people think about uncertainty in a robust way than creating forecasts that claim “rightness”

    Thinking about this created my tongue-in-cheek tag line of “Being a futurist means never being wrong today.”

    My hope is that my clients read this post and when they engage in futures work, that they find a way to include these points in their RFPs and evaluations., and avoid spending money on people who claim to know about the future through hidden revelation rather than realized speculation that offers a range of possible answers, not just one.

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