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Discovery Surveys, Inc.
Specializing in Employee Opinion and Customer Satisfaction Surveys
Improving the Workplace
AN ALTERNATIVE TO ACCURATELY PREDICTING THE FUTURE

By Bruce L. Katcher, Ph.D. President, Discovery Surveys, Inc.

Four out of ten employees say management is not planning well for the future.

A letter came in the mail at my home one day last month. It was a plain white #10 sized envelope addressed to my son, Ben, with a printed return address label containing the name Ms. Ann Marie Johnson of Scarsdale, New York. My son graduated college more than a year ago and now lives in Washington, D.C. I emailed him and asked whether he wanted me to open it or just send it to him.

The letter sat on our kitchen table for several days while my wife and I awaited his reply. We were very curious. The more we stared at the letter, the more perplexed we became. Each day my wife asked whether our son had replied to my email message. He hadn't. We were tempted to open the letter even without his permission.

Then, my wife realized something. She pointed to the address on the envelope and said, "I'm pretty sure that's Ben's handwriting. She also noticed that on the back, in the same handwriting it said, "I bet it will cost 65 cents to mail this." Now we were really intrigued.

Thank goodness our son called the next day. The first thing we asked was, who is Ann Marie Johnson and did he know anything about the letter? He didn't. We then told him we thought it was addressed in his handwriting. He was as puzzled as we were. He told us to go ahead an open it. Here's what we found.

We discovered that this was an exercise from his European History teacher when he was a senior in high school, five years ago. She had asked everyone to write down their predictions about where they would be, what they would be doing, and the state of affairs in Europe in five years. She then had them address the envelope. As promised she held on to the letters for five years and mailed them.

His forecasts were not completely accurate. Although he had predicted correctly that he would be living in Washington DC, he said he would be attending graduate school, which he is not. His predictions about the European Union were only partially accurate.

THE PROBLEM

This incident reminded me of a sobering truth. Although it is important for individuals and organizations to accurately predict the future, it is very difficult for them to do so. For example, many organizations today are in a desperate condition because they didn't accurately predict:

  • The stock market crash;

  • The recession;

  • The failures of banks;

  • The volatility of gas prices; and

  • The dismal Christmas buying season.

Organizations try to predict the future every day. It influences their decisions, such as where to invest money, whether to purchase or rent new equipment and facilities, whether to hire or layoff employees, and whether to launch new products or stick with the old. Some use seat-of-the-pants methods, while others use complex statistical models. What they all share is a low probability of success. People who devote their entire work life to predicting the future, such as stock market analysts, risk managers, and strategic planners, are often just plain wrong.

We live in a world filled with uncertainty. Although we try to manage risks the best we can, we are often caught by surprise.

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WHAT TO DO

  1. Charge All Employees With Maintaining a Constant Eye on the Future

    Planning for the future should not just be the job of senior management. As problematic as it is, scanning the environment for changes and anticipating the future needs to be a focus for everyone within an organization, not just those with that responsibility in their job description.

  2. Develop What-If Scenarios

    Rather than just reacting to crises and sudden changes, organizations need to be constantly developing plans for possible changes in the environment that could influence their business. Once the changes occur, they can then quickly spring into action.

  3. Make Your Organization More Changeable

    Instead of making long-term investments that lock them into a set way of doing business, organizations need to be more flexible. Instead of using rigid organizational charts, the structure of the organization should keep changing as the needs of the organization change. Use flexible rather than fixed job descriptions. Empower employees throughout the organization to make changes that meet current market conditions rather than rely solely on word from the top. Hire employees who are willing to constantly change rather than those who are locked into doing things the same way they have been doing them for years.

  4. Bring in Outsiders to Help You Become More Changeable

    Moving from an organization that is slow to change to one that is constantly changing is a challenge. It requires training leaders and all employees to adopt a different mindset and a different approach to doing business. My colleagues and I can help you. For more information contact me at BKatcher@DiscoveryConsultingGroup.com.

CONCLUSION

Take a lesson from my son and Ms. Johnson, his high school history teacher. Recognize that predicting the future is very difficult and often near impossible. Instead of making predictions and locking your organization into a set way of doing things, launch a concerted program that will enable you to maintain the ability and readiness to constantly change.

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