Special Report - Finding Certainty in the Midst of Change - Page 1

Mar 22, 2011

Daniel Burrus

Wouldn’t it be great if you could predict the future? If you could solve tomorrow’s problems… before they happen? If you could have what I call a "flash foresight" -- a sudden burst of insight about the future that produces a new and radically different way of doing something by opening up invisible opportunities and revealing solutions to seemingly impossible problems.

Most people believe that’s impossible. In reality, you can predict and shape the future. It’s all a matter of knowing what you’re certain about. Perhaps no one knows better than the CIO how quickly change is coming at us these days. Between hardware and software revolutions, advances in cloud-based technologies, and the ever-increasing processing power and bandwidth capabilities, those who work on the technology side of things cope with changes daily.

So, yes, it does seem true that the only thing that never changes is the fact that everything always changes. The only permanent thing about our world is that all is in a state of constant flux. At some level, that’s pretty disturbing, isn’t it? After all, if we’re looking for certainty, that doesn’t give us much to go on … or does it?

Actually, it does. In fact, it gives us everything we need because there are certain patterns in how things change that are as dependable as clockwork. When you can find the certainties within a state of change, you can create innovations and advance your company. In addition, certainty allows you to convince people to take action and is perhaps the greatest sales tool of them all.

Cyclic change

There are two distinct kinds of change we can use to find certainty. The first is cyclic change.

Cyclic change provides us with all sorts of certainty. For example, winter turns to spring, which turns to summer and then fall. Nature is brimming with examples of cyclic change. Cycles of seasons, weather, crop development, animal migration, tidal fluctuations, and other such cycles helped create the first civilizations. In fact, the history of civilization is to some extent the story of humanity getting a grip on cyclic change and using it to increase our chances for survival.

There are also cycles in our economy and body politic, of boom times and lean times, expansive and defensive behaviors. Prices and interest rates rise and fall; Democrats rule Congress, then Republicans. There is a push toward the apparent safety of totalitarianism, and then a counter-push toward the greater personal freedoms of liberalism. Social standards grow more permissive, then more restrictive, and then back toward more permissive. The pendulum swings until it can swing no further, then reverses course and backtracks.

Politically, economically, socially, in every channel of human expression, we manifest with a tide that perennially ebbs and flows. Like a great social heartbeat, the mood of the people expands and contracts; now progressive and gregarious, now more conservative and protectionist. Moods cycle, reflected in fashions, politics, and even international relations, as well as personal relationships. In fact, humanity has identified over 300 distinct cycles that allow us to accurately predict the future to some extent.

Keeping a sober eye on the truth of cyclic change lies at the heart of Warren Buffett’s uncanny success as an investor. He is a master of “tides in the affairs of men.” His investment philosophy is, “Be fearful when others are greedy, and greedy when others are fearful.”

His words are the perfect example of understanding cyclic change and illustrate the dictum start with certainty. If the market is contracting, then what can we know for certain? That before long, it will expand again. And if the market is going through a robust expansion, what does certainty tell us? Get ready for contraction.

Linear change

However, cyclic change is not the whole story. Having a clear grasp of cyclic change is an important element of gaining certainty, but it’s not the core of the matter. Developing a keen sense of flash foresight depends more on the certainty that comes from understanding another pattern of change, one that is quite different from cyclic change.

This second pattern is acyclic and progressive -- that is, it does not cycle back on itself but progresses forward in one direction only. In other words, within this second type of change, what goes up does not necessarily come down. I call this linear change.

A simple example of linear change is your age. Your life progresses in one direction. No matter how well you take care of your health, you are not going to start aging backward. Other examples include a growth in the Earth’s population; increase in data, information and knowledge; increase in worldwide literacy; increasing number of patents and inventions; acceleration of computer processing speed; convergence of features and functions; and globalization.

In other words, once you get a smart phone, you’re probably not going back to a "dumb" one.

Linear change takes place in many forms, from the sudden, logarithmic burst of a population explosion to the gradual accumulation of interest on a CD, yet they all share in common the trait that they curve in one direction only, and do not cycle back on themselves.

Linear change is where the real action is, precisely because it is not a repeating pattern and therefore creates entirely new and unique circumstances and opportunities. Linear change is what makes the future fundamentally new, and grasping this type of change is what allows you to begin making the invisible future become visible.

To a significant extent, developing your sense of flash foresight means being able to recognize linear change and its interplay with cyclic change. However, this is not always as easy as it might seem at first. Some changes are nothing but temporary blips on the radar of time, and contain no reliable information about the future. Other changes are so substantial and reliable that they offer very clear glimpses into the future. How do you know the difference?

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Tags: CIO Insights, IT value, IT innovation, CIO Leadership, CIO career,

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