There are three critical attributes of wise ‘foxes’ – those who are more successful at reading what may happen in future than others, according to Dan Gardner, author of ‘Future Babble: How to stop worrying and love the Unpredictable.’ He contrasts these foxes with ‘hedgehogs’, those who predict the future with one big, often very black and white idea, which is almost always wrong. The critical attributes of foxes, which hedgehogs don’t have, are:
Aggregation – Foxes get their information from a wide range of sources, rather than a narrow band of ‘expertise’.
Metacognition – Foxes are able to think about how they think – That is self-critically analyses their own thinking styles, spot their own biases and adjust their view accordingly
Humility – Foxes extend this self-critical quality into an awareness that, when it comes to predicting the future, the complexity and non-linear nature of change involving people are likely to be wrong, more often than not. And that’s OK. What is really striking about Dan Gardner’s work is how he emphasises that the above qualities don’t actually help these fox-like sages to be better at predicting the future. In fact, this is almost impossible, because the nature of change is such that small variations in conditions can escalate to cause huge variations in the future. He claims moreover that, unless there is some radical, unforeseen, invention of science, it is always going to be unlikely that we will get much better at predicting what will happen next. He avoids saying ‘never’, because of course that in itself would be a prediction!
What he does say is that these three qualities, of aggregation, metacognition and humility, help us in life because they help us deal with the fact that there is perennial uncertainty so much better.
A famous case study: In the late 1950s, the Honda motorcycle company did not have a big plan for selling their nippy little 50cc cub in the American market, contrary to what business schools may preach. What they did is ship a load of them in a container to L.A., for use by their representatives when running around from meeting to meeting, where they were trying to sell their bigger bikes, which they had predicted would be better suited for the American market. But people noticed these little bikes and started inquiring if they were for sale.
The project leader Kihachiro Kawashima, (who went on to be president of Honda in the U.S.), was initially reluctant, but was humble enough to recognise the demand for the little bikes, when it unexpectedly came, for the opportunity it was. This was the bike that became the best-seller. What Kawashima showed was humility and meta-cognition, as well as openness to (aggregated) sources of unexpected information.
What this suggests is rather than businesses wasting their time trying to create instrumental strategies that predict exactly how things will emerge, what may be better is to have flexible contingencies, and to breed the capacity to aggregate, meta-cognate and be self-critically self-aware, as these qualities will help leaders make the best contingencies for what might happen. Predicting the future may not be possible, but it is possible to teach the skills that help us live, and thrive, with this uncertainty.