It was a surprisingly interesting book. I started reading it with my researcher’s hat on, believing in the powers of prescriptive and predictive analysis. Like other analytical minds in my field, I believe that thorough examinations of the past and the present provide solid grounds to predict the future with a certain degree of accuracy.
But Margaret Heffernan’s stance was bolder. According to her, no expert can predict the future, history does not repeat itself and trying to predict the future puts us at risk of missing more creative forces.
As the author of one of the “best business books of the decade” according to the Financial Times and someone who is built a remarkable career in the media industry, Margaret Heffernan knows what she is talking about.
So let me explain why her arguments matter so much for us insights specialists.
As humans and even more as PR practitioners, there is an innate desire to accurately predict the future to influence behaviours. Predictability has become a business, but the truth is that no insights expert and no dataset in the world can make that promise.
Heffernan takes the example of three men who pioneered the forecasting industry in the early 20th century: Irving Fisher, Roger Babson, and Warren Persons. These men, all economists, strongly believed in the statistical analysis of financial markets to produce forecasts and discern future economic movements in the stock market. Their businesses were all built around insights based on the idea that history is repeating itself, albeit with a slight degree of fluctuation.
Unfortunately, none of them saw the recession and the stock market crash coming in 1992 which seriously took a toll on their reputation.
“Unique or rare external events may render what was formerly predictable suddenly unforeseeable, where historical data is irrelevant or useless,” Heffernan explains.
Modern monitoring and analysis technology may be advanced, but it still remains and will always remain imperfect.
Another powerful analogy Heffernan makes is with a 900-miles long fortification built in the 1930s on the border with Belgium, Luxembourg, Germany, Switzerland and Italy called the Maginot Line.
The idea was for these fortresses to become strategic military pillars against the threatening Germanic influence at the time. However, the Maginot Line’s geographical location assumed that the Germans would follow the same strategy used during World War I. Grave mistake.
The Germans had watched the French build their fortifications and decided to act accordingly by attacking from completely different angles.
The French military’s failed battle against the German showed that betting on history repeating itself can put us at an enormous disadvantage.
Heffernan agrees with the idea that history itself can provide a useful lens through which the world can be perceived. History enables us to create new narratives and make associations to understand and define our future goals.
But she goes even further with this argument: accepting that history does not repeat itself allows us to truly take advantage of it.
For PR researchers like me, the fact that uncertainty is the only certainty forces us to not only look at the empirical evidence from previous campaigns and communications plans, but it also teaches us to be critical with this evidence and think outside the box.
So, if we accept that nothing is certain, what does that leave us with? Can we even effectively prepare for the future, and if so, how?
Traditional planning is inadequate for analysing complex systems, but scenario planning is key to answering these questions, Heffernan says. The real difference between traditional planning and scenario planning lies in our ability to produce situations, imagine new implications, map various consequences and plan for them.
“Much in the world is too complex to be predictable, and the future is too malleable to be revealed by hard data alone.”
Ultimately, the goal of measurement and evaluation is to help plan for the future. But traditional planning alone is not enough. Human minds are needed to think of possible scenarios and better mitigate risks.
Like artists, whose minds are full of imagination and provide endless possibilities, we should accept uncertainties and embrace a world that cannot be lived.
Artists do not know exactly what a painting or a sculpture will end up looking like. However, Heffernan admires the fact they act upon their imagined ideas and see where it will take them, improvising along the way if they need to.
A great example of this was illustrated with physicist Stephen Hawkins’ idea of cathedral projects. Hawkins argued that cathedrals are “humanity’s attempt to bridge heaven and Earth.”
Projects designed to last a lifetime are more often successful because they have to constantly adapt to new situations, take into consideration new technological advancements and reflect the latest aesthetics of the time. In other words, cathedrals are future proof.
“Cathedral projects often succeed, not because they deny the uncertainty which surrounds them, but because they accept it as a motivator,” Heffernan says.
Even with all the data in the world, no insights expert and PR professional can accurately predict the future. Heffernan argues that this ignorance is not weakness, and in fact puts forward the argument that embracing the unknown is a great skill to have to create insights.
This book is an eye-opener about our fear of the unknown and our uncomfortable feeling of doubt, uncertainty and instability. It tells the story that trying to predict the future puts us at risk of missing out on higher forces at work.
Unfortunately, hard data alone cannot help us navigate the complex world that we live in. Complexity should not be reduced, it should be enhanced and embraced. And therefore, PR researchers like me should see the world as artists and be like cathedrals.
I started reading “Uncharted: How to navigate the future” thinking that I would find new tips and tricks on how to better predict the next “big thing.” Instead, I embarked on a philosophical journey where predicting the future is a deeply personal experience.
“Uncharted: How to navigate the future” can be purchased here.