The future presents tremendous opportunity. Indeed, one might argue that it is the only thing that ever does. It is often assumed that hard work and determination are sufficient for future success. As we discover the ever-increasing complexity of the present, largely expected to grow incrementally in future, the capacity of leaders to see the opportunities presented by the future, to sense where opportunity may be created, and to perceive the viability of options is now becoming key to the pursuit of organisational success.
One way of interpreting this capability is that it is part of the cognitive suite of competencies essential for leadership decisionmaking. This cognitive suite may include various thinking modalities, some of which have been discussed in previous articles. One critical cognitive competence is strategic thinking, previously discussed using the InCOME PRESCRIPTS 5i Framework. Another modality is systems thinking and systemic leadership, examined for its liberating mindset. Others may include design thinking, analytical thinking, creative thinking and innovation. These competencies also form part of the intellectual domain of leaders, discussed in a previous article in relation to the Eleven Lenses Framework.
This article now examines yet another of these critical competencies, namely future thinking. This modality is distinct from other forms of thinking mentioned above, in that it presents, at its very foundation, a concern not for past performance or present detail, but for the nature and opportunities presented in a time yet to come. Perspectives on the study of the future range across a wide spectrum from those gazing into crystal balls, to statistical modellers who seek the perfect formula, to cynical defeatists who argue that future blindness is an inevitable characteristic of the linear nature of time and that the future can only be unveiled as it occurs. This writer argues that some degree of anticipatory competence is indeed possible.
One of the ways in which competence in future thinking may be enhanced is through the identification and dissolution of bias. Preference is inherent in the way in which reality is perceived. While it is normal and natural, preference has been shaped by experience and exposure, often referred to as schema. Coming to terms with this schema, and recognising the bias it presents, is a powerful way in which leaders may overcome the limitations and blindspots in their decisionmaking for the future. There are a myriad of other ways in which to study the future, but the attempt here is to create an index of bias that may cloud leadership decisions.
There is often a call for leaders to combat bias by managing their emotions and to develop emotional intelligence. While consciousness is useful, this call per se is not sufficient. While equanimity is certainly a valuable pursuit, advisors in this field seldom help leaders to identify their bias in order to overcome it. The opportunity now exists to help leaders with their cognitive development by making salient their specific areas of future blindness. Patently, there is enormous value for high-quality decisionmaking by raising awareness of bias in order to prevent such bias from skewing potential insights and commitments.
An index of possible types of bias appears below. This index may serve as a means of initiating personal bias review and reducing future blindness.
1. Psycho-dynamic bias, including
•Transference – conferring thoughts or feelings for one person onto another
•Projection – conferring one’s own motives and perceptions onto another
•Attribution – assuming intent on the part of another without examining his or her true intentions
2. Status quo bias – assuming that the future will resemble the present
3. Confirmation bias – selecting from a range of data points only those which support one’s assertion, and ignoring all other evidence
4. Personal optimism bias – the belief that risk will be lower for one’s personal case than for the general population
5. Boundary bias – the belief that elements inside one’s circle are safer than those outside
6. Similarity bias – the belief that elements which resemble oneself are somehow superior or inferior for that reason only
7. Paradigmatic bias, including
•Axiological bias – preference for codes of ethics or aesthetics as foundation for decisionmaking
•Ontological bias – using narrow definitions of the nature and origin of entities and assuming others hold a similar view
•Epistemological bias – dubious grounds for the recognition of what one defines as knowledge, i.e. what we know
•Doxastic bias – a view that a certain belief has greater value than another, even in cases where neither belief proves greater benefit or less damage
8. Selection bias – manipulating the nature and quality of a sample
a. Hindsight bias-selecting from one's own earlier predictions only those elements that prove to be true as the future emerges and claiming that one had therefore anticipated the future correctly from the start
9. Dominance bias – any singular dimension deemed as superior to all other data inputs
10. Bottom-line bias – the belief that multiple factors all amount to a singular, underlying fact
11. Novelty or recency bias – skewed validity based on the energy and level of experience of recency and newness. This includes
•Personal novelty bias, i.e. the assertion that something is better or worse because it is new to the observer
12. Structural bias – preference or deference for shape, form and process
13. Causal bias, including
•Singular cause bias – assuming a relationship of causality between two dimensions in which one is the result of the other, without recognising other potential contributing factors
•Original cause bias – the perspective that the first contributing factor is the most significant
14. Proximity bias – the belief that what is closer has a different risk or opportunity profile simply because of its proximity
15. Control illusion – the belief that one’s action has a determining impact on the outcome
16. Schematic bias – the belief that only experience in one’s own schema or one’s own total historic formation is relevant
17. Availability bias – noticing only what is accessible in the immediate environment
18. Positivism – the belief that only data received via the senses have validity. Also called vividness bias
19. Provenancial bias – the belief that data validity is determined by its origin or history
20. Loss aversion – making decisions on the grounds of the avoidance of potential damage rather than potential gain.The opposite of upside bias
21. Upside bias – the opposite of loss aversion
22. Halo effect – ascribing a special beneficial quality to someone, which masks any potential faults
23. Fundamentalism bias – the belief that a singular belief should form the foundation for all other behaviour and belief
24. Recurrence bias – the belief that current and future problems are simply a repeat of past problems, justifying re-use of previous solutions
25. Cure-based diagnosis – ascribing causality to a condition typically improved by an intervention when that intervention appeared to lead to amelioration, i.e. the cure explains the cause
26. Anchoring – the habit of ‘sticking to our guns’ despite new evidence to the contrary
27. Sunk-cost bias – evaluating future value (and the likelihood of continued investment) based on the scale of the investment that has already been made
28. Passion bias – evaluating the feasibility of a future venture based on the degree to which it aligns with a personal motivational driver
29. Personal interest bias – selecting a future course of action based on the benefit only to oneself or one’s organisation, and ignoring longer term circular damage from those who will sustain one in future, such as customers
30. Randomness bias – the belief that all possible actions for the future are equal owing to the random nature of the future and the lack of certainty about the future.
Determining the status of the future as either fecund – or moribund – requires high-quality cognitive processing. An ability to identify types of bias is one way to transition leaders from a mere awareness of, to a deep insight into, potential alternative cognitive processing for enhanced trend consciousness. Recognising and overcoming cognitive bias is a powerful way of arriving at more accurate foresighting and embracing the richness of opportunity that the future holds.
Dr Morne Mostert is the Director of the Institute for Futures Research and the president of World Leadership Day. His areas of expertise include future thinking, systems thinking, design thinking, strategic thinking and creative/innovation thinking. He advises internationally on improving high quality decision-making for leaders.