Insight to foresight: How can executives predict the future?

Utilizing data is key to understanding what market trends will be


We hold in awe visionaries like Steve Jobs, Elon Musk, Jeff Bezos and Warren Buffett. Somehow, these people—probably certifiable geniuses—saw the future before anyone else did in their fields. Heck, they essentially reinvented their fields—information digitization, transportation, retail and value investing. They knew how to “skate to where the puck is going, not where it has been”—what Walter Gretzky told his son Wayne long before his advice became conventional wisdom and Wayne became a hockey legend.

The thing is, (spoiler alert) most people aren’t visionaries. And yet a business leader’s job is to predict the future! We are all expected to use our intuition and thoughtful hypotheses to produce a plan that illuminates not only what’s next but also how to capitalize on opportunities and mitigate risks that have yet to emerge.

For those of us who aren’t natural born game changers like Jobs, Musk, Bezos and Buffett, vision isn’t enough. Yes, vision inspires innovation. But what empowers innovation? What gives innovation focus? What gives innovators confidence?

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Data. Because it provides clues. And clues give business leaders—who feel inspired to innovate but are worried that their intuition might be wrong—the confidence to set some priorities, make some decisions and act.

One of the best types of clues is the insight, which I define as a penetrating truth that can help you build your business or even start a new one. Insight is rooted in a deep understanding of what drives the actions, thoughts or behaviors of our target audience(s)—consumers, customers, intermediaries or employees. At Maddock Douglas, we frame an insight in a three-part statement:

  • 1. I do (or feel, or want, or value) [X]…                                         
  • 2. Because of an important reason [Y]…
  • 3. But an obstacle [Z] stands in the way.

Insights are powerful. Articulating them and quantitatively measuring which ones are most relevant to our target audience gives us a head start over competitors who wait for people to tell them what they want and need. But insights can get you only so far when it comes to predicting the future. They are based on what we can already hear consumers saying and see them doing—and if we can make those observations, so can the competition.

A few years from now, consumers are going to have undeniable wants and urgent needs that simply don’t exist today. We’ll start to observe evidence of these pain points in what people say and how they behave. Slowly at first, little hints emerge. Eventually, they will become undeniable truths. They will become full-fledged insights.

But what if we could leap ahead and articulate now those pain points that people are going to have in the future – before they know they are going to have them? If you had a crystal ball and with 100% certainty could predict people’s future needs, you’d probably get a taste of what it feels like to be a visionary, because they would probably tell you that you’re crazy.

Before Uber caught on, who would believe you would be willing to get in some stranger’s personal car and ride with them wherever you needed to go? When I first heard of Uber Black Car service in Washington, DC, in early 2012, it sounded way too risky. Not until two years later, in 2014, did I order an Uber, but now it has become my preferred way to get around town.

Insight is about the here and now. Foresight is about the future (where the puck is going) and being there and ready to deal with it when it arrives. A foresight is a probable, penetrative truth that could help you build your business in the future. It is rooted in the prediction of the most likely motivational forces behind actions, thoughts or behaviors that will become an insight (with a pain point begging to be solved) in the future.

Having foresight allows you to anticipate those truths so that once your target audience feels and wants and needs something, you are already there and waiting with a solution. And your competitors, who were waiting for people to ask, will be playing catch-up.

Building on the personal transportation theme, a foresight that would have been relevant before Uber took hold:

I’m willing to pay a nonprofessional driver for a ride [X] because it would be so much more convenient than a taxi [Y], but I can’t trust someone I don’t know anything about to drive me [Z].

How did Uber solve this foresight? They developed ways to boost riders’ confidence in the safety of the service. They did it by providing driver profiles with names, photos, make and model and license plate of the car, driver reviews, and GPS tracking throughout the trip.

Now let’s move to a foresight that few people would find personally relevant today—and would be hard to imagine feeling relevant in the future:

  • I want to own an autonomous vehicle [X] because it would make commuting much more relaxing [Y], but I just can’t justify the huge expense [Z].

Solutions are currently evolving that will probably make this true in the future. People may not think that riding in an autonomous vehicle sounds relaxing today—especially given the recent news of the first pedestrian fatality caused by such a vehicle—but they will, once safety concerns have been resolved. For example, Waymo in target cities is mapping every detail of roadway (topography, signs, lines on the road), allowing a car to know its position on the road to within 10 centimeters of accuracy. Tesla is working on a way for a person to remotely control an autonomous vehicle in case of emergency.

And once this pain point is real, someone will find a way to solve it. Uber and other ride-hailing services today are investing in autonomous vehicle fleets and opposing private AV ownership in cities. This strategy could open the way for a category of newcomer to solve the foresight with a different approach that keeps fleet costs low. For example, what if a new competitor let individuals’ autonomous vehicles pick up riders and earn money for their owners during the 90% of the time their owners aren’t using the vehicles? That could help consumers offset the costs of AV ownership and make it a more attractive investment.

These are examples of foresight that see what’s coming, that anticipate what the market will accept and even demand—before almost anyone knows it. The Holy Grail in all of this is correctly predicting a future need or demand and then being ready before the future arrives.

The challenge is that corporate leaders, eager to be innovative, fear being exposed for not having a vision that provides all the answers. But no one—not even a visionary—can rely on intuition alone. It takes real data to confidently make decisions and set (and reset) a course.

Warren Buffett gets kudos for being one of the world’s savviest and most successful investors—a genius with numbers and financial analysis. Yet he often admits he has no idea what’s coming over the horizon. He does, however, spend hours every day consuming reams of data—everything from annual reports and financial supplements to numerous newspapers, trade journals and magazines—to find his diamonds in the rough. And still he fails from time to time—but he doesn’t let it paralyze him.

The good news is that today, we have the technological tools and processes to quickly triangulate genius. Computers can now create exact replicas of works of art that the experts can’t detect aren’t “real,” or make mediocre singers sound like they have the pitch of Celine Dion. And we can use prediction market research to quantify which foresights are most likely to become reality (and when, why and how) in the future. So the not-so-secret wish of executives for their people to become visionary is within reach.

Skating to where the puck is going—being there when the future arrives—raises the central question in all of this: How do we know where the puck is going before it’s been launched? It isn’t from a vision or instinct or guesswork. It’s data. And the ability to collect and analyze clues to the future has never been greater.

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