Four ways to better predict the future

In a week where the government has fallen into chaotic limbo, Lurpak butter has caused outrage with unprecedentedly high prices, and fuel protests have brought UK motorways to a standstill, it’s fair to expect the unexpected when we ask ourselves “what’s next?”.

Yet, for businesses, staying one step ahead has never been more pressing. When looking to the future, real foresight requires us to look beyond the obvious consequences of what we see happening in the world. Instead, system-based thinking encourages us to keep asking “… and then what?”. We’ve been using this approach for clients as diverse as high-street banks, railway networks and baked goods manufacturers since the onset of the first COVID lockdown.

Here are four ways we’ve learned to make smarter, more accurate predictions about the future through applying system-based thinking.

1 / Leave preconceptions at the door

We should always keep an open mind when undertaking any research, but this is doubly true when making predictions about how a category might change. Researchers (who, believe it or not, are still human) are often guilty of making the same illogical decisions, or drawing the same biased conclusions, we like to admonish consumers for. 

These can be formed from our own experiences in a category, or surface during initial category exploration when reviewing previous research, or simply reading industry news. Hypotheses workshops – an often-lauded way of getting all the issues out on the table – invite stakeholders to share their own preconceptions, biases and agendas. 

All of this noise can still be useful and shouldn’t be immediately dismissed, but we need to work incredibly hard to police it and ensure the conclusions we draw are supported by hard evidence and not just commonly accepted truths.

2 / Employ ‘what if’ thinking

‘What if’ thinking can be a great way to challenge conclusions and assess a wider range of possibilities and category challenges.

Firstly, use it to challenge respondents. Ask them to think about how they would behave if various scenarios were to occur. Of course, take these responses with a pinch of salt, don’t ask too much (high-level system one responses rather than a detailed series of next steps) and be realistic with which scenarios to test (consider parking ‘wildcard’ scenarios such as Brexit or a new COVID variant).

Secondly, use it to challenge yourself. How does the story change if scenario A occurs? What happens if New Entrant A enters the category – what does their offer look like, what’s their customer promise and reason to believe, and where would our business be vulnerable?

3 / Use, and get the best from, a wide range of sources

When trying to predict the future of a category, it is rare that we have too little information on which to base our conclusions. Instead, the opposite is usually true; we’re spoilt for data, ranging from first-hand consumer research, to expert opinion, to sales trends and forecasts. The weight of available information might seem daunting at first but can be extremely valuable if managed correctly.

Maximise the value of each source by interrogating its strengths and weaknesses, using them to solve different parts of the puzzle. 

Sometimes sources will clash and contradict each other. Welcome this and actively look for where this occurs: reconciling these apparent contradictions is often a necessary precursor to hitting upon a powerful insight.

4 / Be humble and realistic

Predicting the future is hard. There is no shame in recognising the limits of our own knowledge, in fact being honest often breeds greater confidence in what we have to say. 

So be realistic and humble when undertaking this work. If needs be, offer multiple possibilities and explain how each could come to fruition. Caveat your conclusions and be clear about their limitations or shortcomings. Recognise your work may well be one part of a larger, collective effort and invite others to challenge your conclusions. Only then will we all arrive at a clearer idea of what is yet to come.

Get in touch to find out how we can help see into your business’s or category’s future.