Futurists need to be historians, too

“Look back twice as far as you look forward,” writes forecaster Paul Saffo in his Harvard Business Review article “Six Rules for Effective Forecasting” (July-August 2007). It would be easy to misunderstand that powerful statement — Saffo’s Rule No. 5 — so let’s dissect it a bit.

Notice that he says “look back twice as far.” Recent history rarely repeats itself directly. Futurists can make big mistakes extrapolating from recent history, Saffo says, so you need to look much farther back to identify useful patterns. For example, the Web’s dramatic transformation of the media landscape seems to defy categorization, unless you look back 50 years to the emergence of television. Saffo writes:

The texture of past events can be used to connect the dots of present indicators and thus reliably map the future’s trajectory — provided one looks back far enough.

He adds that, although you may find useful patterns in the past, don’t try to force exact matches.

It’s been written that “history doesn’t repeat itself, but sometimes it rhymes.” The effective forecaster looks to history to find the rhymes, not the identical events.

Two other interesting Saffo Rules (paraphrased by me):

  • Good forecasting is the process of having strong opinions that are held weakly. Always look for conflicting evidence so you can ditch a bad prediction.
  • Know when not to make a forecast. Sometimes there are “moments of unprecedented uncertainty,” when it’s better to let things settle down before even attempting a prediction.

How to Forecast the Future, a Q&A interview with Paul Saffo

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