Betting on the Future


Daniel Burrus’ Flash Foresight, offer the unusual promise on the cover of helping the reader to “see the invisible and do the impossible.” Sounds less like a business best-seller and more like a magician’s spell book.


As a futurist, Burrus has an impressive track record of predicting developments in the technology field since the 1980’s. However, his methodology for seeing the invisible turns out to be his ability to see the hard trends and to anticipate the soft trends. Burrus defines a hard trend as “a projection based on measurable, tangible, fully predictable facts, events, or objects.” The central point being that a hard trend is something that will happen. For example, the growth in the earth’s population and advances in technology are hard trends. In terms of your strategic planning, you don’t need to spend any time debating if these things are going to happen.


A soft trend, by contrast, might happen and, therefore, we have a chance to do something about it. People often confuse the two and end up missing the opportunity to shape the future most positively in their direction. Incorporating hard and soft trend thinking into your planning, allows you to know what is certain and what is still to be determined. A common theme in many corporate success stories features company leaders clearly seeing the hard trend and then adapting their strategy to meet the demand and outmaneuver the competition.


Of course, a clear understanding of what is certain does not guarantee “doing the impossible.” Burrus offers six more principles for that. The two most interesting are “Take your biggest problem – and skip it” and “Go opposite.” Both principles seem contrary to human nature, which is why they offer hope as a way of being the first to see and capture emerging marketplace opportunities.


Burrus writes, “The key to unraveling our biggest problems is to recognize that they are typically not our real problem. Skipping our biggest problem, instead of trying to solve it, sets our mind free to discover and engage the real problem.” Obviously, this is appealing advice since most of the time we feel duty bound to put forth our best effort to solve our biggest problem. And usually this is an unpleasant task requiring not just physical effort but depleting us mentally and emotionally. As Burrus notes, in a world of rapidly changing everything, the solution is more likely to be found in new opportunities.


The other bit of wisdom in this principle is our propensity to work on the wrong problem. This largely relates to past successes, sunk costs, and a general tendency towards forming emotional attachments. To realize that fixing the past is not a prerequisite to enjoying future success propels us towards our most innovative solutions.


Business history offers a number of examples of companies whose success was based on being different, not better. In fact, this has become so widely articulated, one wonders if “going opposite” will soon mean “copying others.” Probably not. There is still much appeal to looking at the success of others and figuring that the shortest path to success is to simply build a better version. Additionally, this principle doesn’t tell us to go 45 degrees in a different direction but encourages us to think differently by 180 degrees. This requires a willingness to bet big in a new direction because, as Burrus warns, “If it can be done, it will be done – and if you don’t do it, someone else will.”


When the world seems to be spinning more and more out of control, the temptation is to hang on tight to what you know works and pray that your organization can make it through the storm. Unfortunately, the hard trends like population growth, technology, and globalization make it impossible to stand still, much less go backwards. Fortunately, we have the soft trends and the opportunities to make decisions that will allow us to shape the future. The two sides of the change coin, opportunities and threats, require leaders who are wise in their interpretations of current events and bold in their future experiments.