It’s fun to imagine what the future may hold, and all of us in our minds are pretty good at it. Accurately forecasting it? Not so much. The New York 1939 World’s Fair looked at the world of tomorrow and inadvertently demonstrated how very bad we are at predicting what it would hold, the Poland exhibit being a sad example. It opened in May and by September the country was being divided between Germany and the Soviet Union.
And, many of the things forecast for tomorrow were very much rooted in the day. Scroll through items from the fair offered for sale on eBay, and it’s amusing to see how old fashioned the future was.
When I lived in Washington in the mid-1980s the Smithsonian had a wonderful exhibit, Yesterday’s Tomorrows, which looked at past visions of the American future. What was remarkable was seeing how the future envisioned at each point in time was so rooted in that moment.
And there’s even a term for the study of the topic of former visions of tomorrow – “paleofuture” – and a blog on the topic, although like most things these days it’s a bit overrun with politics.
The bottom line is that when looking to the future we tend to take whatever is going on now and take it to an extreme. We also tend to throw in fanciful things like flying cars (which I’m still waiting for) and videophones (which we have with technology like Facetime and Skype, that didn’t turn out to be as exciting as we thought).
Despite the fact that we are weak in our predictive skills, we have to keep making predictions. We need to have a sense of where we are going and what it might look like. It gives us some direction. And in compliance and ethics, when we conduct a risk assessment, we are predicting what the future, or several different alternative futures, might be.
So, how do we do it effectively, knowing we will likely be wrong?
Nassim Taleb, author of the book The Black Swan, notes that while can’t always control what will happen, we can control how we respond.
It’s an invitation to ask:
- How would we respond if this or that compliance failure happened?
- Who would we turn to for help?
- What are our existing resources?
- What resources might we need?
- What would management need to do?
- What would we need to tell our workforce?
- How could we reach them appropriately?
Asking these questions and others across possible risk scenarios – across possible futures – may yield common answers. By finding the commonalities, and thinking how to make the most of them, you may find the clearest vision you’ll ever have of how you will live in the future. And while that vision won’t give you a flying car to beat traffic, it could make your future work much easier.
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