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The best way to predict the future is to create it." Peter Drucker

When world-renowned global futurist Daniel Burrus was introduced to former GM chairman Rick Wagoner, the latter said, "Well, of course no one can predict the future." Burrus replied, "Let me think, just for a minute here. It's fall, and next it'll be winter. I think I'll be right."

Turns out he was, in fact, correct. But besides being flippant, Burrus' answer underscores a basic tenet of his work: we can predict the future. Or, at least, "enough of it to make all the difference." Even in a world filled with uncertainty, there is much of which we can be certain - and this is the key to unlocking "invisible" opportunities.

Flash Foresight

In his best-seller, Flash Foresight: How to See the Invisible and Do the Impossible, Burrus introduces the concept of the "flash foresight." Similar to a classic eureka or ah-ha! moment, it is a:

... an intuitive grasp of the foreseeable future that, once you see it, reveals hidden opportunities and allows you to solve your biggest problems - before they happen. Flash foresight will allow anyone to both see and shape his or her future.

Like any leadership skill, the ability to engage in flash foresights can - and should - be developed and strengthened. The question is how?

7 Keys to Seeing and Shaping the Future

Throughout his career as a business strategist, futurist, and innovation expert, Burrus identified, and applied, seven "triggers" that lead to flash foresights:

  1. Start with Certainty.
  2. Anticipate.
  3. Transform.
  4. Take your biggest problem - and skip it.
  5. Go opposite.
  6. Redefine and reinvent.
  7. Direct your future.
Learn how to apply these seven "radical principles," and you can see and shape your future and that of your organization.

Where to start? At the beginning: with that of which we are certain.

Certainty In An Uncertain World

Burrus likes to tell audiences, "You can predict the future accurately. All you have to do is leave out the parts you could be wrong about."This usually gets a laugh - until people realize he's serious. And right. When you take out the parts you could be wrong about, there is "enough left that you can be right about to make all the difference."

There's "enough left" because change isn't random or unpredictable; in fact, there are clearly discernable patterns - if we know where to look for them. There are two different types of change that can help us find certainty: cyclic change and linear change.

Cyclic Change: What Goes Up Must Come Down

Think back to the early 2000s: housing prices skyrocketed. In some cases, the "value" of a property doubled within a year. What people - caught up in the frenzy - forgot is that when a market expands, it will contract. It is not a question of "if" but of "when."

This is an example of cyclic change - and nature, politics, and economics are full of them, from the changing of the seasons and phases of the moon to stock prices and interest rates. Burrus writes, "[H]umanity has identified over three hundred distinct cycles that allow us to accurately predict the future to some extent."

Cyclic change is inevitable. What goes up must come down. After a market expansion, comes a contraction. After fall, comes winter. Start with those certainties.

Linear Change: What Goes Up - May Keep Going Up

Understanding cyclic change is important, but flash foresights depend more heavily on linear change. Here, the pattern progresses in one direction. Consider your age, for example. What goes up...will keep going up!

The first iPhone had 4GB of internal storage; the 6S offers up to 128GB. It's only going to grow. Computer processing speeds are only going to get faster - and to get faster faster. Linear change, says Burrus, "is where the real action is." Because the patterns do not circle back and repeat, they create "new circumstances and opportunities."

Hard and Soft Trends

To predict the future accurately, we have to understand the interplay between cyclic and linear change - and we need to figure out the difference between hard trends and soft trends. As Burrus says, these are the "future certainties" vs. the "future maybes."

A hard trend is based on measurable, tangible, predictable facts; a soft trend is based on statistics that appear to be tangible and predictable.

For instance, we know with certainty that a market contraction will follow an expansion. That is a cyclic change and a hard trend. When and to what extent will the market contract? We don't know; it's a soft trend "because our behavior and choices can influence it."

One more: we know with certainty that computer processing speeds will increase. That is a linear change and a hard trend. Which manufacturers will take advantage and introduce breakthrough models? We don't know; it's a soft trend.

So why does this matter? "Knowing how to identify hard trends gives us the ability to see the future. Knowing how to identify soft trends gives us the ability to shape the future."

Putting the Principle Into Action

Burrus's clear, straightforward approach effectively demystifies flash foresights. It's not magic; it's good thinking. He identified seven action steps to help us develop our ability to use the first trigger, starting with certainty:

  1. List all of the cyclic changes that are affecting you, your life, and your business.
  2. List all the linear changes that will have an impact on your life.
  3. List hard trends that are taking place in your industry so you know what you can be certain of.
  4. List soft trends that are taking place in your industry so you can see what you can change and/or influence.
  5. Ask, "What do I know will happen in the next few weeks, months, years? How can I innovate to take advantage of what I know for certain about the future?"
  6. Involve others in your organization (e.g. business partners, employees, customers) to identify what will happen versus what might happen. How can you use these results to "co-create" the future?
  7. Question your assumptions. Examine each item on your lists: are they really hard trends? Are they certainties? Or are they maybes?

This much is certain: if you don't take charge of your future, you're letting it "unfold by default." What else is certain? Start asking yourself this question, and finding your answers.


Larry Hart

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