Seeing into the future – 200 years ago…

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Seeing into the future – 200 years ago…

200 years ago this week was the battle of Waterloo which saw Wellington defeat Napoleon and left him as the foremost soldier of his day.

One of Wellington’s best known quotations was:
“All the business of war, and indeed all the business of life, is to endeavour to find out what you don’t know by what you do; that’s what I called ‘guess what was at the other side of the hill’”

And of course as a general on campaign, Wellington’s concern was with his decisions in relation to a physical landscape – albeit one that may have been unknown to him. For Wellington, predicting his future landscape was an exercise in projecting the known and observable current landscape into the immediate but unknown future landscape in order to inform decisions. It is tempting to believe that this approach is generally applicable, and sometimes it is, but of course not always and there are some fundamental structural issues that determine when this works and when it doesn’t.

There is a trick that we commonly play on ourselves when talking about decisions in business. The trick uses the language of space to try to understand time. We talk about strategic or product roadmaps and milestones – as if the future was a road to which there could be a map.

The most basic difference between Wellington’s approach and most business decisions is that the landscape Wellington manoeuvred through did already exist, so the prediction of the “future” landscape was in fact not really about the future, it was a judgment about something already real but unknown. Most business decisions are not like that. A decision is about the future and is the act by which we choose one future state over another future state. We make judgements about the past and present, but all decisions are about the future and worse that that, they are acts that create or shape the future. So it is almost as if Wellington’ prediction created the landscape – which is of course not the case.

The use of inappropriate and misleading spatial metaphors to try to deal with time – something that is quite literally a different dimension is just one aspect of how poor our mental models are of decision making and of the way we gather and interpret information to take decisions.