A chimp throwing darts
As a strategist I am sometimes asked by brands to give a presentation on future trends. I always feel slightly ambiguous about these presentations, as I am not a futurologist. And even if I were, predicting the future is somewhat comparable to predicting the weather.
Last weekend this notion was reinforced when I read a review about the book Superforecasting by Philip Tetlock and Dan Gardner in newspaper NRC Handelsblad. In his book Wharton professor Tetlock refers to one of his studies in which he analysed the predictions of 284 ‘experts’ – read: those who had 12 years or more experience in studying political and economical developments.
His main conclusion: the average expert is not better at predicting the future than a chimp throwing darts.
We already knew that primates beat stock market experts, but the book dives into the matter a little deeper.
The nuanced expert
On top of the salient comparison with primates Tetlock even states that the more famous the experts, the worse they generally perform in predicting the future. The reason is simple; the media – who help experts in becoming famous – prefer straightforward, confident experts, above more nuanced experts who dare to exhibit a fair amount doubt.
A third important conclusion in Superforecasting is that teams of predictors do 23% better than individual experts. A team of 12 superforecasters even 50% better. The reason why teams do better is that they have access to a wider scope of (expert) knowledge.
To become better at predicting the future the book advises to not always trust your intuition
The counter-intuitive view
To become better at predicting the future the book advises to not always trust your intuition. Before I elaborate on this point, I have to admit that I am a big fan of making decisions based on intuition. The reason is – as I’ve explained in Defining Creativity – that the intuition of the expert is based on the knowledge gathered over many years. So, making business decisions on intuition is definitely not a bad thing.
The book’s point however is that we often have preconceptions about what the future will look like and that we prefer to gather the information that confirms this preconception. What thus sets superforecasters apart is that they are more willing to listen to contradicting viewpoints and adjust their opinion.
So, for example, if you believe that Elon Musk and Stephan Hawking are right in predicting a Terminator-like future in which artificial intelligence overtakes the Homo sapiens, you should also listen to what futurologist Ray Kurzweil has to say on this topic.
Don’t just look at your own domain, but also study trends in neighbouring domains
Another important tip from the book that improves your predictions is to regularly zoom out of your field of expertise. Which means; don’t just look at your own domain, but also study trends in neighbouring domains. For example, when Dutch telco provider KPN’s CEO Eelco Blok in 2011 told the media he didn’t foresee the advent of mobile apps as a direct competitor of his telco services, he had clearly been preoccupied with his direct competitors – who were offering exactly the same services. He didn’t evaluate the meaning of ‘communication’ in a wider digital perspective.
Another trait of superforecasters is that they break complex problems into smaller more tractable ones, that they don’t over-react to specific pieces of evidence and that they evaluate their predictions in hind-sight and learn from their mistakes.
Though the superforecasters are generally slightly more intelligent than the average expert, their ‘super’ traits can be relatively easily taught and learned. The book explains that a 60-minute tutorial already improved the expert’s performance with about 10%. A more rigorous dive into Tetlock’s lessons could thus easily help the expert to overtake the monkey again in making reliable predictions.