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Thinking about the future.

August 31, 2017

As practitioners of strategy in the context of the future, we at SAMI have always instinctively believed that this approach is better than strategy with a good view in the rear view mirror. Views of the future allow you to think long term and make informed decisions for the long term.

How to improve thinking about the future?

One way of approaching this question uses Hedgehogs and Foxes to describe styles of thinking. Originally from Greek mythology, Isaiah Berlin introduced the analogy for discussing management styles in 1953:

“The Fox knows many things but the Hedgehog knows one big thing”

As Berlin uses it, Hedgehogs relate everything to single concrete narrative, through which everything in life is reduced to a single set of certainties. Foxes, on the other hand, distrust grand designs and absolute truths, and instead pursue many ends, often unrelated and even contradictory. They use a flexible array of insights that guide them as they experiment, play with ideas and experience, explore and, on occasion, pounce.

Recent psychological testing has shown that this is a valid and powerful way of classifying people. As psychologists have defined the type, Hedgehogs are people who are happiest operating within a closed problem domain, in which standard tools and focused effort allow them to compete with their peers. They are happy with the existing system or implementing a formula to change it.

Foxes are at their best exploring new terrain and re-thinking certainties. Their goals are largely self-actualisation and they are seldom concerned to rank themselves against their peers. Foxes are suspicious of commitment to any one way of seeing an issue; they prefer a loose insight that is calibrated from many perspectives. They are tolerant of dissonance within a model – for example, accepting that an enemy regime might have redeeming qualities – and are relatively ready to recalibrate their view when unexpected events cast doubt on what they had previously believed to be true.

Then a Professor at the University of California at Berkeley, Phillip Tetlock started to explore how to get better at predicting the future in 1987. It was then that he started to collect forecasts from about 300 experts – initially about preventing a nuclear war but then extending to encompass about 27,500 much wider political and geo-political events. The results were published in his book “Expert Political Judgement” in 2005.

Tetlock first discusses arguments about whether the world is too complex for people to find the tools to understand political phenomena, let alone predict the future. He evaluates predictions from experts in different fields, comparing them to predictions by well-informed laity or those based on simple extrapolation from current trends. He goes on to analyze which styles of thinking are more successful in forecasting. Classifying thinking styles using Isaiah Berlin’s prototypes of the fox and the hedgehog, Tetlock contends that the fox–the thinker who knows many little things, draws from an eclectic array of traditions, and is better able to improvise in response to changing events–is more successful in predicting the future than the hedgehog, who knows one big thing, toils devotedly within one tradition, and imposes formulaic soTetlocklutions on ill-defined problems. A famous diagram from this is on the lines below:

Here, calibration is the number of right predictions, and discrimination is the range of the predictions. So it is possible to have stellar discrimination and terrible calibration scores if you make bold and wrong predictions. As well as the lack of success of all forecasters compared with models, he also noted a perversely inverse relationship between the best scientific indicators of good judgement and the qualities that the media most prizes in pundits–the single-minded determination required to prevail in ideological combat.

Rather than decide that forecasting was too difficult for mere mortals, Tetlock started the Good Judgement Project in 2011. He has 20,000 volunteers who participate in an annual tournament, giving judgement on geopolitical issues and updating as and when appropriate. The early years of the tournament are already yielding exciting results.

For instance, – even brief training works – a 20 minute course on how to put a probability on a forecast, correcting for well-known biases, provides lasting improvements to performance.

A second insight is that teamwork helps – teams of forecasters who discussed and argued – produced better predictions.

He has produced advice for forecasters summarised as CHAMP

  • Comparisons are important
  • Historical trends can help
  • Average opinions over diverse groups
  • Mathematical models should be taken into account
  • Predictable biases exist and should be allowed for.

We are fans because this is the only systematic approach we have found to getting better at forecasting.

An HBR article summarising it is https://hbr.org/2015/02/what-research-tells-us-about-making-accurate-predictions .

To find out more, SAMI is running a number of training courses on aspects of foresight throughout the year – details can be found on www.samiconsulting.co.uk/training

Written by Gill Ringland, SAMI Fellow and CEO.

The views expressed are those of the author and not necessarily of SAMI Consulting.

If you enjoyed this blog from SAMI Consulting, the home of scenario planning, please sign up for our monthly newsletter at eSAMIsignup@samiconsulting.co.uk and/or browse our website at http://www.samiconsulting.co.uk

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