Why Futurists May Be the Career of Tomorrow

by Amy Webb for MIT Sloan Management Review

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Futurists are skilled at listening to and interpreting signals, which are harbingers of what’s to come. They look for early patterns — pre-trends, if you will — as the scattered points on the fringe converge and begin moving toward the mainstream. The fringe is that place where hackers are experimenting, academics are testing their ideas, technologists are building new prototypes, and so on.

Futurists know most patterns will come to nothing, so they watch and wait and test the patterns to find those few that will evolve into genuine trends. Each trend is a looking glass into the future, a way to see over time’s horizon. This is forecasting: simultaneously recognizing patterns in the present and thinking about how those changes will impact the future so that you can be actively engaged in building what happens next — or at least be less surprised by what others develop. Forecasting is a learnable skill, and a process any organization can master.

The advantage of forecasting the future in this way is obvious. Organizations that can see trends early enough to act can gain a first-mover advantage. While futures forecasting is a professional and academic discipline going back more than 100 years, few companies employ futurists. That’s starting to change as more leaders become familiar with the work futurists do. Accenture, Ford, Google, IBM, Intel, Samsung, and UNESCO all have futurists on staff, whose work is quite different from what happens within the traditional R&D function.

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