Great Moments in Prediction

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“The Americans have need of the telephone, but we do not. We have plenty of messenger boys.” – Sir William Preece, the British Post Office, 1876.

“This ‘telephone’ has too many shortcomings to be seriously considered as a means of communication. The device is inherently of no value to us.” – Western Union, 1878.

“Everything that can be invented has been invented.” – Charles H. Duell, an official at the US patent office, 1899.

“Who the hell wants to hear actors talk? The music–that’s the big plus about this.” – H. M. Warner, Warner Brothers, 1927.

“I think there is a world market for maybe five computers.” – Thomas Watson, chairman of IBM, 1943.

“The world potential market for copying machines is 5000 at most.” – IBM, to the eventual founders of Xerox, saying the photocopier had no market large enough to justify production, 1959.

“There is practically no chance communications space satellites will be used to provide better telephone, telegraph, television, or radio service inside the United States.” – T. Craven, FCC Commissioner, in 1961.

“There is no reason anyone would want a computer in their home.” Ken Olson, president, chairman, and founder of Digital Equipment Corp, 1977.

“For the most part, the portable computer is a dream machine for the few … On the whole, people don’t want to lug a computer with them to the beach or on a train to while away hours they would rather spend reading the sports or business section of the newspaper.” – Erik Sandberg-Diment, The New York Times, 1985.

“I will believe in the 500-channel world only when I see it.” – Sumner Redstone, Chairman, Viacom and CBS, 1994.

“The truth is no online database will replace your daily newspaper, no CD-ROM can take the place of a competent teacher and no computer network will change the way government works” – Clifford Stoll, 1995.

“You’ll never make any money out of children’s books” – Advice to JK Rowling from Barry Cunningham, editor at Bloomsbury Books, 1996.

“Now, I think things have gotten so bad inside Iraq, from the standpoint of the Iraqi people, my belief is we will, in fact, be greeted as liberators.” – Dick Cheney, Vice President of the United States, March 2003.

“The idea that we’re going to see a collapse in the housing market seems to me improbable.” – John Snow, Treasury Secretary, 2005.

Almost everything an organization does is inherently a prediction about the future. The talent we hire is a bet on which skills will be more valuable down the road. The products we manufacture are a bet on what our consumers will want tomorrow. The marketing messages we craft are a bet on what will attract someone’s attention under a future context.

The average lifespan of a Fortune 500 firm was 75 years in 1937. Today, that lifespan is hovering dangerously close to just 5 years.

That single statistic says a lot about how the world has changed in the last 75 years. It also demonstrates just how ineffective most organizations have become at predicting what’s around the corner in this more connected and more global world.

As our ability to predict the future wanes, our ability to invent the future must supplant it. Today’s organizations spend untold resources and time trying to predict the future. Managers once existed to ensure quality and/or efficiency in their subordinates (e.g. looming over the assembly line), but as technology and management practices have alleviated that demand, the field of management has become more and more obsessed with predicting the future. Compounding this, most structures within large organizations seek to limit agility rather than promote it.

We have worked to create a process by which organizations such as these can unlearn their bad habits. As interesting as we find it, we know that managers today don’t have the time to ruminate on the finer points of management theory and their ability to predict the future. We know that companies are profit-driven. They need success stories to rally behind in order to change. And if we can help create just a small handful of these cases, we think there’s the potential that the masses will take notice.

Here’s to hoping.

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