The Art of Anticipatory Thinking
You can’t avoid the constant barrage of news regarding impending technological change. The future is coming fast, and the fear is that increasingly intelligent machines will take over and eliminate a lot of jobs.
Many people already consider a good job to be hard to come by. And technology is often the culprit they blame.
It’s wise to accept that automation and artificial intelligence will eliminate millions of jobs. And even if new jobs are created for people who are trained to work with machines, you have to wonder what the quality of those jobs may be.
On the other hand, people who work for themselves make technology work for them. It’s the complete opposite dynamic from a corporate cubicle where AI tracks your every move and chides you to work harder.
So, there’s no doubt technology will bring huge changes to the labor market this decade, and COVID-19 has accelerated those disruptions. But instead of fretting about losing your income to rapid technological change, let’s flip the script.
Instead, look at this impending wave of change as a wave of opportunity. Instead of potentially losing your income, you can put yourself in a position to spot new income opportunities and end up making more than ever.
- What if you could see coming disruptions before they impacted your career?
- What if you could predict problems people will have and help them succeed?
- What if you could spot new business opportunities with more certainty?
When you think about it, all three of those questions are relevant to building your personal enterprise. You have to protect yourself, sure, but the key to business success is finding new ways to help people who aren’t paying attention to a topic or industry the way you are.
The art of anticipating change is the art and science of foresight. Let’s dive in a little deeper and see how you can train yourself to think like a futurist, step-by-step.
Step One: Separate Concrete and Contingent Trends
When it comes to practicing strategic foresight, it’s important to be able to categorize types of trends accurately. I like to think in terms of concrete and contingent trends.
Concrete trends are based on a future fact. These are things that are happening and will continue to happen.
Contingent trends, on the other hand, are based on logical assumptions stemming from concrete trends, but still might only happen (or continue to happen). These contingencies have to do with how humans respond to concrete trends, and some form into enduring consumer and business trends, while others do not.
One prominent example of a concrete trend is advancing technology. Areas such as artificial intelligence, augmented reality, biotechnology, and 3D printing aren’t speculative — they’re here now and will remain so. Even if every government on the planet outlawed AI, for example, it would still exist, because the ability to create algorithmic functions is already out there.
Another big concrete trend is demographic change. By 2030, the entire Baby Boomer cohort will be over the age of 65. Once you start adding in Generation X, there will be 400 million more people over the age of sixty in 2030, totaling more than 1.4 billion people.
Now, let’s look at the contingencies. Because this is where you spot the opportunities.
A contingent trend is a future “maybe” — a projection based on statistics and other measures that are still assumptions. What determines if these assumptions become truth is all about how people react to a particular change.
So, we know AI and automation will kill millions of jobs. What remains to be seen is whether more new jobs are created, which has historically been the case when technology disrupts human labor.
Right now, those in the know are betting yes, but this is still a contingency. If the humans who run corporations can make do with fewer people, they will. Another contingency is how other people will react to retraining opportunities for these possible new jobs.
Further, how the humans who those companies employ are treated in relation to the algorithms and robots is another contingency based on human behavior in the face of technological change. It’s possible to imagine that employment will become even more stifling.
When it comes to demographic change, many are predicting a longevity-based economy that’s fueled by the new “gray market” of seniors as the dominant social class. But given that marketers have been historically awful at creating viable goods and services for people over the age of 65, this remains to be seen.
On the other hand, given the low-hanging fruit that the opportunity of a huge market of wealthy older people presents, entrepreneurs may swoop in and cash in. In fact, many of those entrepreneurs may be over the age of 60 themselves.
The danger with contingencies that emerge with a bang, instead of gradually, is to confuse a fad for a trend. This has burned many a marketer and entrepreneur who dove in early and were left with very little after a short period of time.
For example, the Pokemon Go craze of 2016 was intense, and ultimately brief. It was a fad, but if you paid attention closely, Pokemon Go was not the trend in the first place. It’s an early application of augmented reality, which is the broader technology that will remake the internet and perhaps the “real world” itself.
Here’s an example from my own entrepreneurial history. Just after the dot-com bubble began to burst in 2000, some people called the internet itself a fad. I knew from both observation and participation that this was as ridiculous an idea as some of the bubble business models had been.
One reason had to do with how reliant people had become on search engines and easy access to information. I knew people were searching for real estate listings online, so when the city I was living in became a test market for a new technology called IDX, I decided to create a virtual real estate brokerage.
IDX allows real estate brokers to display MLS home listings on websites (this is what now powers Zillow as well). Pair that with people searching for those listings and my knowledge of how to get in front of them, and I quickly had a successful business in an industry I was completely brand new to.
In other words, I observed human behavior as it related to a concrete trend (reliance on the internet for information). Because of that I created a successful business almost immediately, while the broader trend of people using the internet to check out home listings continued.
Fast forward to 2021, and it became the basis for an SNL sketch. The edge becomes mainstream, and the early adopters win.
Step Two: Create a Timeline
To effectively anticipate how the future will play out, it helps to segment the opportunities you’re interested in across a spectrum of time. Accurately accessing where any given contingent trend is on that spectrum can make all the difference.
In other words, the farther out you go in time for a particular contingent trend to become concrete, the less likely you can be sure it happens. One way to think about this is the Futures Cone, a visualization of Possible, Plausible, Probable, and Preferred futures when it comes to a particular trend.
- Possible: These are things that could happen at some point, but you’re looking out pretty far. This means not only may it not come to pass due to technological or societal limitations, but that the time to jump on the opportunity is not yet ripe.
- Plausible: These are things that could happen fairly soon, but it’s still more conjecture than concrete certainty. There are no significant barriers to it happening, though, which puts it a step beyond possible.
- Probable: These are things that are likely to happen, and fairly soon. This is the category to focus on when contemplating a new business, product, or service.
- Preferable: This is the way you’d like things to turn out. This can be based on idealism for the greater good of society or the world, or because they’re good for you and your business. Preferably both.
So, let’s look at the topic of artificial intelligence through the Futures Cone for a quick, simple illustration:
- Possible: AI via automation and robotics eliminates the need for human labor altogether.
- Plausible: AI eliminates millions of jobs that are not completely replaced by new jobs, severely disrupting the labor market and society at large.
- Probable: AI eliminates millions of jobs, but leads to new and different jobs that didn’t exist before.
- Preferable: AI leads to the creation of new and different jobs that didn’t exist before that emphasize uniquely human traits like creativity, empathy, and communication instead of rote, boring tasks.
On a practical level, this could mean:
- Starting a business helping people find fun things to do because they live a life of leisure, given that AI does all the work, would be foolish at this point.
- Starting a business that retrains displaced workers to gain viable employment or start small businesses is more viable, but not a sure thing at this point.
- Starting a business that prepares creative people to adapt to technological change, learn how to use important software, and improve their overall skillset is a likely winner.
Next up, we want to think deeper about scenarios of how things will play out in the context of a trend. Just because you foresee a thing happening doesn’t mean it will turn out the way you’re anticipating.
Step Three: Map Out Scenarios
Back in the late 90s, I was well aware of blogs (weblogs at the time). I even used them in my real estate business because they were easy to set up and tended to do well in search engines.
But I didn’t start proper “blogging” until January of 2006. Part of that goes back to timing — I had to see if this would remain a fringe thing, a short-lived fad, or something more meaningful.
Plus, I personally needed the adoption of blogging to be something positive in which I could help people. It needed to represent the beginning of a transformation in publishing and media, one in which regular people could meaningfully participate in building audiences that built businesses.
It took a while, but it became clear that blogging was becoming a viable commercial form of digital publishing, and people were looking for help in ways they didn’t know they needed. I then saw a probable and preferable scenario where I could build a business helping people by teaching them copywriting and marketing skills.
And that’s how Copyblogger was born. From there, I spotted many other viable scenarios for products and services that led to a bootstrapped company that did 8 figures a year in revenue.
As we saw in the last section, one way to think about possible futures is through the lens of time. But beyond that, humans make sense of possible futures through stories. And concocting different stories about how things will play out forces you to think differently about opportunities before you commit to them.
The Four Futures Framework is a way to spin meaningful stories that guide your decisions. And it’s an ideal way to think about and build your personal enterprise.
- Continuation: Things continue much as they are, leading to growth and stability.
- Limits and Discipline: Adaptive behavior is required to survive and thrive.
- Decline and Collapse: The way things have been falls apart, leading to chaos.
- Transformation: A significant paradigm shift transcends the status quo.
Can you see how this can be applied to your current situation, and the preferred outcome you’d like to achieve? Give it a try based on your own current situation.
Here is a quick example to get you started:
- Continuation: Your current career ladder remains promising. You’re in senior management, and your Baby Boomer boss is approaching retirement. You are adept at using software to enhance your productivity, and are well-respected by your team.
- Limits and Discipline: Your boss decides he doesn’t want to retire anytime soon, leaving you stuck in place. The firm adopts powerful artificial intelligence software that increases your output to the point that you can accomplish your normal workload in half the time. Unfortunately, the company requires that your output more than double, while the AI monitors your performance and provides annoying prompts when you dare take a moment to think.
- Decline and Collapse: The firm adopts powerful artificial intelligence software that leads to layoffs for most of the senior management team. This new software guides younger, lower-compensated employees and provides the buffer between the C Suite and the staff that you used to provide. You remain unemployed a year later.
- Transformation: You see how advances in technology specific to your expertise can increase your productivity while providing you with more free time for family and friends, travel, and side projects. You work out an arrangement where your employer becomes your first consulting client, while quickly adding two others. An idea for a digital product is percolating based on the common pain points your clients express.
Your scenarios will naturally be dependent on your specific situation. But elements of the example will be all too common this decade. Make sure to be brutally honest with yourself.
A Skill Beyond Business Ideas
Most people won’t take the time to pay close attention and anticipate the future. Consequently, they’ll be put in a reactive position and have to deal with a blur of unanticipated developments as best as they can. Without guidance, they’ll fall further behind every year as the pace of change accelerates.
This will not be pleasant. Feelings of helplessness and lack of control never are.
However, those who learn to anticipate disruptions, problems, and opportunities will shape and create the future. They’ll also be in a position to offer true value to others that opens up a path to a vibrant personal enterprise.
The very skill that empowers you to anticipate change and spot business ideas is the same that allows you to build an engaged audience. When you can guide people to success by understanding what’s coming and how it’s likely to play out, you become what’s known as a thought leader.
If that sounds pretentious to you, you don’t have to call yourself that. In fact, you shouldn’t claim leadership or expertise — you must demonstrate it.
More on that in the next lesson, coming tomorrow.
P.S. Here’s a mindmap of the process set forth in this article, created by Chuck Frey.