written by Erika Andersen
The best way to predict the future is to invent it.” – Alan Kay, 1971
I spent the day yesterday with one of my favorite client groups. They’re the senior team of part of a major media company, and they are smart, funny, curious, talented and kind people. The quote above was on the introductory page of a deck they had put together outlining their vision of change for the coming year.
In addition to the fact that they’re such delightful human beings, I love working with this group because they’re actually operating according to this quote. While lots of people in media (and many other industries) are wringing their hands, refusing to engage in real planning because the future seems so unpredictable, and others are blithely setting aggressive financial goals, expecting that doing the same things they’ve always done will somehow get them there, these folks are making the future their own. They’re saying, in effect,
“Here’s the direction we think things may be heading – and here’s our response to that.” I think this distinction between predicting the future and inventing it is an important one. I often get the feeling that we all believe that business success in this day and age depends on having some kind of a crystal ball: on being able to know with a high degree of certainty what’s going to happen, and then create a business solution that’s tailored to that correctly-predicted future. For instance, we assume that Mark Zuckerberg, 10 years ago, somehow magically knew what the world was going to be like in 2013, and said to himself, “Since the world of communication will be hugely centered on social media in ten years, if I start this now, I can have over a billion users by 2013.”No. In 2003, he started something called ‘facemash’ at Harvard, where he was a student – a website where he put up photos (which he had hacked from the ‘facebooks’ put out by each of Harvard’s resident houses) of two students side-by-side, and invited other students to rate who was hotter. He got a lot of response, and based on that, decided to write the code for the website that become Facebook. Here’s what Wikipedia has to say about it:In January 2004, Mark Zuckerberg began writing the code for a new website, known as ‘the facebook’. He said in an article in The Harvard Crimson that he was inspired to make Facebook from the incident of Facemash: “It is clear that the technology needed to create a centralized Website is readily available … the benefits are many.” Within twenty-four hours, [they] had somewhere between twelve hundred and fifteen hundred registrants.
The site quickly became so popular at Harvard that Zuckerberg and his friends soon expanded it to other universities and colleges, and then high schools. In September of 2006, Zuckerberg and company opened the site to anyone over the age of 13 with a valid email address.
So: no crystal ball was involved. Zuckerberg did something almost as a lark, and when it got a lot of response it showed him a gap that needed to be filled. He invented a way to fill that gap. The response to his solution catalyzed a realization that there was an even bigger gap than he’d thought: he re-invented his solution to fill that gap. He repeated that process of observation and re-invention for another 7 or 8 years and: voila, Facebook 2013.
Good leaders don’t wait till they’re sure what’s going to happen and then go for it. First of all, it’s impossible: nobody knows for sure – especially these days – what’s going to happen.
Good leaders get clear about what they and their people are best at and most passionate about. They gather as much information as is feasible about where things might be heading, and they reflect on it – together with their folks – as objectively as possible. Then they head in a direction that takes best advantage of their strengths to meet key needs they believe will arise, given what they understand about current trends. They invent new models, approaches, products or solutions that will serve a future need, and in so doing, they have a hand in inventing that future.
That’s what my clients were doing yesterday. It’s both daunting and exhilarating; it requires courage, curiosity, and resilience. But as pioneers of all sorts have discovered over the centuries, it’s the only way to find a new world.