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Year-end lists are hazardous to your health

December 24, 2012
December 24, 2012

They are a pretty diverse group that spends most of the year frantically differentiating themselves from one another: forecasters, branding and creative agencies, analysts, consultants, bloggers, columnists, and technology gurus. But come December 1st they all share a particular affliction, a kind of creeping trend eschatology. This isn’t your run-of-the-mill foretelling of end-times (sorry, Mayans), but a kind of self-renewing compulsion to offer predictions about what will be in the coming calendar year. You’ve seen them, doubtless read them, and perhaps even felt a twitch to offer one or more up (Quartz certainly has)—the Top 10 Tech Trends for 2013, the Top 7 Toy Trends for 2013, the Top 5 Digital Media Trends for 2013, the Top 3 Eating Trends for 2013, and so the list goes on.

There is a lot of good thinking out there, but much of it is crowded out by novelty predictions, last-minute call-arounds to fill year-end pages, and a big dose of linkbait. The problem created by this unfiltered mass of prognostication is a confused readership, largely unable to distinguish thoughtful analyses from mere guesses. The long-term effect is that it has become more difficult to judge the value of forecasts, and therefore, it’s harder to make decisions based on them. So, as a professional forecaster I am providing, as a public service, a short user’s guide to the Top Trend phenomenon. I wouldn’t presume to say anyone shouldn’t publish such a list—it’s a free market. However, it is worth keeping a few considerations in the back your of mind when unwrapping and consuming a stack of Top Trends. In no particular Top Order:

1. A prediction is not a forecast, but a dart thrown for entertainment’s sake. A common error made by armchair prognosticators and even some professional futurists (people who study structured methods of modeling alternative futures for the benefit of strategic foresight) is co-mingling predictions and forecasts. For the record, a prediction is a statement of what someone thinks will happen, while a forecast is a more complex picture, a cone of possibility. A prediction is a point, while a forecast is mostly likely a range. Making a predictive statement misunderstands what the idea of describing a trend is—it’s more about putting a shape on an emerging dynamic for the sake of understanding its potential impact, and less about “calling it” for next season. The choice of words between “prediction” and “forecast” is an indicator of how to value what you read. Hint: wishes come true or don’t, predictions are correct or incorrect, forecasts are validated or not.

2. Consider the source. Think about who is doing the forecasting, and ask, “What stake do they have in this?” I spent a decade in technology analysis prior to looking at longer-term future horizons. Technology companies and their resident gurus often have a horse running in the race they are calling. Few are being intentionally misleading, but cognitive bias does come into play when forecasting, leading to overly optimistic forecasts. Sometimes this is done to help fan the flames of growth and speed development, or signal to a market to fall in line behind a vision. Either way, it’s helpful to clarify assumptions and biases.

3. What are the criteria being used? Often we hear something “will be huge” next year, but we have little insight into the criteria by which “huge” is measured. Why Product A instead of Product C? Why will one flavor beat out another? Is this a Top Trend because of the potential scope of impact? Because of the money it could bring in? Because it could alter the shape of the markets (the dreaded “disruption”), or change behavior? By how much? If we have no idea about measurement, we have no way of valuing what we read for ourselves—we are just left with a breathless qualitative statement.

4. A year is not a year. Beyond taxes, laws and some sports, few trends sit conveniently within the container of a year. By definition, the dynamics of trends mean they rise, peak and fall, or sustain long enough to become what futurists call a driving force—deep movements that impact many other trends and events. I suspect attaching a year to a trend comes from the seasonal businesses such as fashion, but it’s largely an irrelevance when it comes to describing how streams of influence move and shift. Trends don’t begin in January, nor do they glide to a halt come the holidays. We should get out of the mindset of thinking so.

5. Accountability for past forecasts is critical. It’s easy to throw out a list of predictions and forecasts, but harder to go back and review them for value, publicly. Forecasting should involve a feedback loop. What did we miss? What did we overplay? What dynamics weren’t adequately accounted for? How does that change our approach? One recent example of such a post-mortem comes from The Economist, in which foresight expert Helene Lavoix ably breaks down the publication’s 2012 predictions in an article of her own. While the few engaging in self-reflection are to be applauded, simply looking at it as an exercise in horn-tooting and scorekeeping isn’t as useful. The look in the mirror should also involve methodology-searching.    

Being a critical consumer of others’ insights is the first step to avoid being a passenger on someone else’s assumptions. Quickly concocting a Top Trends list is easy, but doing the legwork behind it is harder. A more discriminating audience might help bring the signal-to-noise ratio back to a reasonable balance. Otherwise, we just go on being data rich and decision poor.

You can follow Scott on Twitter at @changeist. We welcome your comments at ideas@qz.com

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