Imagining a future without forecasting

Predicting what is going to happen next has never been more challenging, according to Fern Miller, Managing Consultant at Grey Consulting.

Fern Miller

Managing Consultant Grey Consulting


So…what’s going to happen next, then?

The collective hunger for an answer to this question has been growing daily, and Boris’ “sketch of a road map” for the months ahead has provided very few. The Nation has had a crash course in forecasting and virology, becoming conversant in Double Dips, infection rates and, for those who were really listening, the importance of the R Number. We are now fully exposed to the factors which will be analysed to provide a forecast, which will lead, ultimately, to a plan. How and when that will manifest itself remains somewhat vague, and the thorny question of why this virus took our world leaders by surprise in the first place is troubling. 

Perhaps the lesson we should be learning is that nobody really knows what’s next. But it doesn’t stop us wanting to know; we are biologically hardwired to scan the horizon.

The desire for certainty is just as keenly felt in the (virtual) boardroom. The reporting machine that underpins shareholder and investor relations demands a plan, and a forecast of the commercial impact of that plan, and a reforecast, when the first forecast was missed. There is only one thing worse than not hitting your targets, in most commercial enterprises, and that is the discovery by others that you weren’t able to forecast accurately in the first place. Nevertheless, with so little certainty about when a business can sell, staff, produce or deliver the goods, being able to forecast is an even taller order than usual.

Marketing leaders are rapidly rewriting their usual playbook to suit the operational context, but also the emotional one.

Fern Miller

So, can you predict any part of the future with any certainty?

It is a topic we delved into as part of our virtual debate series, The Distance Resistance, designed to get us through lockdown with discussion and inspiration. Our latest session covered the world of forecasting, which gave us the opportunity to talk with those who have long been the guardians of near time forecasting. Ben Page, CEO of Ipsos-MORI told the audience that despite decades of polling, when it came to predicting how the public would vote in an election, “we are no better at forecasting election outcomes than we ever were”. The critical success factors continue to be the collection of likely preferences, as close to the election date as possible. Any further out than a week and the chances of people changing their minds are too high.

In a volatile business climate, we can assume that the same applies to commercial forecasting. One week’s toilet paper shortage is the next week’s bread flour demand. Similarly, one week’s need for comfort and reassurance in the media we consume is just as speedily replaced with a need for inspiration and something, anything new. Marketing leaders are rapidly rewriting their usual playbook to suit the operational context, but also the emotional one. How will people feel about advertising? What will they want to hear in six weeks? With market research constrained by the shutdown, and no precedent for Times Like These, we are forced to rely on intuition and cross our fingers.

The fallacy of forecasting via big data

No wonder Big Data looks tempting as a source of future gazing. Are the answers to how we will be living the next few months hidden in our online signalling? Harry Davies, Google’s Head of Measurement and Analytics brings sober news from the frontline of Artificial Intelligence, he explains: “Whilst the availability of maths at scale has allowed us greater ability to recognise near time patterns such as credit card fraud, the forecasting of more complex eventualities such as a future Baby Boom, for example, are fraught with risk.”

He describes the constraints facing analysts: “The cost of good data remains high, the challenge of analysing all the potential drivers of human behaviour is considerable and after all, most information available has been edited and generated by humans, with all their biases and flaws affecting how reliably they understand their own action.”

Dr Margaret Hefferman, acclaimed writer, broadcaster and author of the recent book Uncharted: How to Navigate the Future does not bring any solace for furloughed futurists either. She describes the word “Futureproofing” as a misnomer, condemns the practice of “learning from History” as a fallacy and claims that 80% of forecasts are propaganda, the description of a desired future rather than a probable one.  

In the current terrifying context, hearing that we are all reliant on a series of partial and ill-informed guesses is sobering, but Hefferman brings hope, too. She believes that following the example of artists would give us a proven strategy for imagining possible futures: “The most accurate predictions of the future are offered by those who get amongst the real world and observe it”.

Chasing the chimera of prediction was a fool’s errand, but the ability to identify all the possible risks and opportunities ahead with open minded imagination is a powerful advantage.

Fern Miller

Forecasting via empathy

Just as Page reports that Ipsos MORI do more work that is ethnographic in style in order to better understand the underlying shifts in behaviour, she urges marketers  to copy the example of those who “walk and look, and walk and look”, building our ability to empathise, as a means to being able to intuit how people will feel.

She cites the principles of Cathedral projects: faith driven enterprises whose completion were never seen by those that started them. The people working on them had clear, guiding principles for the project, but the operations are necessarily adaptable, and their leaders given the freedom to change how they work. Because if, like La Sagrada Familia in Barcelona, your build will take hundreds of years to complete, you need to be more resilient and open to futures you could have never considered.  

The panel agreed that chasing the chimera of prediction was a fool’s errand, but that the ability to identify all the possible risks and opportunities ahead with open minded imagination is a powerful advantage. With that in mind we have pulled together the following principles for replacing your organisation’s compulsive future-gazing. Letting go of the concept of certainty and replacing it with a more open-ended practice of readying the enterprise for whatever the future may hold will help you embrace the opportunities that uncertainty brings.

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