The Power of Certainty in an Uncertain Age « BMW Change Accelerators

Change is accelerating: this we know for predictable fact.

“There is nothing certain but death and taxes,” so they say. They’re wrong. There is plenty more that is certain.

Change is accelerating today. It will be accelerating more tomorrow. Because of the dizzying rate of technological, commercial, and social change, it can easily feel like we are living in times of greater uncertainty than ever before.

Uncertainty keeps us from moving forward, launching new products, hiring more people, starting new businesses. Certainty, on the other hand, allows us to move forward with confidence. And we actually know a great deal more about the future than we think we know. We just need to understand where and how to look.

In speeches I often say, “Wouldn’t it be great if you could predict the future—and be right?” and the audience always laughs. It never fails. Maybe that’s because they know on a gut level that whenever someone says he’s going to predict the future, there’s a good chance he’ll be wrong. (How often do you read the headline “Psychic Wins Lottery”?)

But I think they also laugh out of a sense of delight because they know that if it were possible, it would be amazing.

Imagine, if you could predict the future—and be right?

You can. All you have to do is leave out the parts you could be wrong about. And the amazing thing is that when you do this, there’s more than enough that you can be right about.

People don’t trust forecasts based on trends because they don’t trust trends. We think trends are like fads: here today, but who knows for how long? “Trends,” we say with a shrug. “Hey, sometimes they work out, sometimes they don’t. It’s a crapshoot.”

But it’s not a crapshoot. The reason we typically don’t trust trends is that we haven’t learned how to make the distinction between what I call hard trends and soft trends.

A hard trend is a projection based on measurable, tangible, and fully predictable facts, events, or objects. A soft trend is a projection based on statistics that have the appearance of being tangible, fully predictable facts. A hard trend is something that will happen: a future fact. A soft trend is something that might happen: a future maybe.

Will your smartphone four years from now have a faster processor, better built-in video camera, and more storage (both in the device and in the cloud) than the one you have today? You know the answer. Of course it will. That’s a hard trend. Will the model you buy four years from now be sold by Apple? Don’t know. Soft trend.

This distinction completely changes how you view the future. Once you know the difference between hard trends and soft trends, you know where to find certainty—and the future suddenly becomes visible. This gives you the capacity to have what I call a flash foresight: a blinding flash of the future obvious.

Back to death and taxes.

Death and taxes are both examples of cyclical change: Birth, growth, decline, death. Effort, productivity, profitability, taxation. Seasons. Political tides. Stock market fluctuations. There are more than 300 cycles scientists use to predict the future. But that’s only one kind of change. Economists use cyclical change to look into the future.  Have you noticed they have been increasingly wrong lately? That’s because they don’t consider progressive, linear change—change that keeps going in one direction, and only one direction.

Once you get a smartphone, you’re not going back to a dumbphone: linear change. Once someone in China parks her bicycle and starts driving a car, she’s not going back to a bike: linear change. Once someone in India gets refrigeration, he’s not going to give it up again.

These are one-way, linear changes, with predictable consequences. By the way, linear changes are the ones that are creating a world of mind-boggling accelerating change.

And here’s the point: what happened to Kodak, Motorola, and Blockbuster? Accelerating linear change happened: digital cameras, digital cell phones, streaming online video. They treated them as soft trends and paid the price of the mistake. Who saw those changes as the hard trends they were? Canon, Apple, and Netflix.

Is accelerating change disruptive? Yes, utterly, cataclysmically—but only if you don’t see it coming.

And what if you do see it coming? Then the world is your oyster.

Because when you understand linear, as well as cyclical change, and hard trends versus soft trends, this gives you a base of certainty. It gives you a roadmap to the future.

In tomorrow’s post we’ll look at three specific hard trends of linear change that are transforming everything.

Meanwhile, here’s a question that lets you predict the future: In relation to your world four years from today, what are you certain about?

How true…