Special Report – Finding Certainty in the Midst of Change

“Within the next two to three years, you’re going to see a huge, successful virtual bookstore opening up online, and it’s going to transform the way people shop for books. It could be one of you here in this room who does this — but chances are, it will be someone from the outside, someone who is not already invested in the present way of doing things. Someone who will look at things with fresh eyes and have a flash foresight.”

No one in the room took my comments too seriously; after all, this was 1993, and hardly anyone even knew the World Wide Web existed, much less what it was. Mosaic, the first graphical-interface Web browser, had just been released that April, and the first widely used browser, Netscape Navigator, would not appear until the end of the following year. The concept of e-commerce as we know it today did not yet even exist.

And you already know what happened next. A year later, a thirty-year-old entrepreneur incorporated a brand-new company called Cadabra.com. A year after that, Cadabra launched an online bookselling portal, which its founder eventually renamed Amazon. That entrepreneur was Jeff Bezos, and four years later he was Time magazine’s Man of the Year cover story. Bezos saw the hard trend; today he is one of the richest men in America.

Back in 1993, of course, none of this had happened yet, but given the state of development of the World Wide Web and the increasing capabilities of home computers and modems, I was certain that it would; certain enough to risk my reputation by going on record with that prediction to an audience of thousands. It wasn’t a lucky guess, and it had nothing to do with being psychic: given the hard trends, it was fully predictable.

Hard trends make the future visible. Once you see the distinction of hard trends, you start opening all sorts of doors to new possibilities.

Remember that strategy based on certainty has low risk and high reward. Base your strategies on certainty, on the known future visible in hard trends and the soft trends that you can manipulate, knowing which is which and acting accordingly, and you will build something that will not only survive but even thrive in the years ahead.

Hope is not a strategy. Certainty is.

History may be bunk

We can learn from history. That’s true — to an extent. But there may have been more insight than wise-crack in Henry Ford’s remark, “History is bunk,” because, in fact, hindsight does not necessarily bring wisdom. If it did, everyone would have lots of wisdom. Yet we still keep making the same mistakes.

No, too often what hindsight brings is not wisdom but lament. “I should have bought Google stock when it first hit $100 a share. We should have entered that new market two years ago. I should have taken that job with that technology startup company. I should have known … ” This is a universal lament. But if we’re operating out of hindsight, we never see it coming.

Why does it always seem that we learn about something too late to take advantage of it?

The answer is so simple it’s shocking: We didn’t see it coming because we weren’t looking.

Looking into the visible future is no longer a luxury. In an era of rapid, epic change, it has become a survival necessity. When we buy into the myth that “we live in an uncertain world,” and, indeed, that in the 21st Century, the world is becoming “more uncertain than ever,” we do so at our peril. It simply isn’t true.

Here are some things to do right now to increase your certainty:

  • Focus on what you can know. Every time you bump into something you aren’t certain about, put that to the side and keep focusing on the things you are certain about.
  • Make a list of all the cyclic changes that are affecting you, your company, and your industry.
  • Make a list of all the linear changes that will have an impact on your business.
  • Make a list of all the hard trends that are taking place in your industry, so you know what you can be certain about. Eliminate from this list anything you are not certain is a hard trend.
  • Make a list of all the soft trends taking place in your industry, so you can see what you can change or influence.
  • Instead of being blocked by the uncertainties around you, ask yourself: “What can I be certain about? What do I know will happen in the next few weeks, months, and years? And how can I innovate to take advantage of what I now know for certain about the future?”
  • Business planned on certainty have low risk. Does your business plan take advantage of certainty?
  • Involve others from your company, department, industry, and even your customers in the process of identifying what will happen versus what might happen. Use the results to co-create the future.
  • Question your assumptions. Examine each item on your list to see if it is truly a hard trend or a soft trend, a certainty or only a possibility.

Is the world changing faster than ever before? Absolutely. But within that bewildering maelstrom of change, there are always vast currents of certainty; currents that allow us not only to predict the future, but also to positively shape it. We just have to know where to look.

If we don’t make this shift today, it will be far more difficult tomorrow. Because as dizzying as the pace of change has been these past few years, this has been only a warm-up. Things are about to start changing a lot faster. The more you operate from certainty, the better you and your company will fare.

Daniel Burrus is considered one of the world’s leading technology forecasters and business strategists, and is the founder and CEO of Burrus Research, a research and consulting firm that monitors global advancements in technology driven trends to help clients better understand how technological, social and business forces are converging to create enormous, untapped opportunities. He is the author of six books, including The New York Times and The Wall Street Journal best seller Flash Foresight: How To See the Invisible and Do the Impossible as well as the highly acclaimed Technotrends.