We Are All Futurists
Thomas M. Cagley Jr.

We’re all futurists, whether we are trying to predict little things like whether our favorite sporting team will do well in tomorrow’s game or bigger things like whether we will love and cherish a significant other for longer than the lease on a new car.  In either case we are constrained by the quality of the data that is available to predict from, our ability to perceive disruptions in the flow of the past into the future and how much we really believe in our forecast.  Constraints can make some people uncomfortable with the possibility of being wrong which leads them to eschew making predictions.

Predictions as a general rule are built on the belief that what happened in the past has some bearing on what will happen in the future.  The bearing can be as simple as describing a starting point to as complex as defining a starting point, direction, speed, potential impact and duration of an event. Put another way predictions range from the fairly simple to mind staggeringly complex (read an economics journal to fill in the frame of reference).  Knowledge requires data that can be consumed and transformed.  Knowledge of the past requires that we have data about what has happened and why it has happened.  This leads us directly to the need to collect data as it is created.  Collecting data as it is created reduces the risk of having to perform archaeological research on events later on.  The more precise and rich the data is the better the understanding we will have about the past.  Observation and measurement are requirements and the better at these skills you are the less likely you will be to falling prey to thinking you are beginning in one place and when actually you’re somewhere else.

I’ve heard the curse “may you live in exciting times” attributed to a Chinese philosopher and while some excitement is fun, it probably complicates predictions, forecasts and estimates.  Regardless of the degree I may have paraphrased the curse; the curse describes the essential problem with all forecasts.  Simply put predictions can become boat anchors when disruptions or shocks occur.  Disruptions are even more problematic when they are not recognized. Shocks and disruptions can lead to predictions becoming merely interesting artifacts and dangerous if used for guidance.  I would suggest that knowing that shocks will occur does not mean you should shy away for trying to predicting the future but rather that you should spend time observing.  Observing more than the narrow slice of your specialty increases the likelihood that you will see the shock or disruption as it builds or occurs.  Note that shocks and disruptions are far rarer than the combination of poor logic, poor data and poor effort.

Belief in a prediction can have a significant impact on whether some forecasts (assuming the prediction is rational to begin with) come true.  Belief can drive the amount of effort you are will expect making a forecast true.  The whole concept of “a self fulfilling prophecy” is an admission that what we believe can affect how we act.  How we act can affect the outcome of a process for better or worse.  Unless you are supposed to be producing an independent prediction or estimate recognize and harness the energy that a prediction can generate and use it to your benefit.

 Estimation is a critical tool in the all fields in information technology.  By definition an estimate is a prediction of the future therefore are apt to be incorrect.  Estimates are affected by the quality of the data we have from the past, our ability to discern whether we are being impacted by shocks and disruptions and whether or not the organization believes that the estimate is viable.  Failing one or more of these areas is a prescription for ending up somewhere far, far away however putting your head in the sand and deciding not play is even more self limiting.