Tuesday, July 30, 2019

How To Think About The Future (Part 1 -- Questions About Questions)

We don't think about the future; we worry about it.

Whether it's killer robots or social media or zero-day exploits, we love to rub our preferred, future-infused worry stone between our thumb and finger until it is either a thing of shining beauty or the death of us all (and sometimes both).  

This is not a useful approach.

Worry is the antithesis of thinking.  Worry is all about jumping to the first and usually the worst possible conclusion.  It induces stress.  It narrows your focus.  It shuts down the very faculties you need to think through a problem.  Worry starts with answers; thinking begins with questions.

What Are Your Questions?
“A prudent question is one-half of wisdom.”Francis Bacon
"The art of proposing a question must be held of higher value than solving it.”Georg Cantor
“If you do not know how to ask the right question, you discover nothing.”W. Edwards Deming
Given the importance of questions (and of asking the "right" ones), you would think that there would be more literature on the subject.  In fact, the question of questions is, in my experience, one of the great understudied areas.  A few years ago, Brian Manning and I took a stab at it and only managed to uncover how little we really know about how to think about, create, and evaluate questions.

For purposes of thinking about the future, however, I start with two broad categories to consider:  Speculative questions and meaningful questions.  

There is nothing wrong with a speculative question.  Wondering about the nature of things, musing on the interconnectedness of life, and even just staring off into space for a bit are time-honored ways to come up with new ideas and new answers.  We should question our assumptions, utilize methods like the Nominal Group Technique to leverage the wisdom of our collective conscious, and explore all of the other divergent thinking tools in our mental toolkits.  

Speculation does not come without risks, however.  For example, how many terrorist groups would like to strike inside the US?  Let's say 10.  How are they planning to do it?  Bombs, guns, drones, viruses, nukes?  Let's say we can come up with 10 ways they can attack.  Where will they strike?  One of the ten largest cities in the US?  Do the math--you already have 1000 possible combinations of who, what, and where.

How do we start to narrow this down?  Without some additional thinking strategies, we likely give in to cognitive biases like vividness and recency to narrow our focus.    Other aspects of the way our minds work--like working memory limitations--also get in the way.  Pretty soon, our minds, which like to be fast and certain even when they should be neither, have turned our 1 in 1000 possibility into a nice, shiny, new worry stone for us to fret over (and, of course, share on Facebook).

Meaningful questions are questions that are important to you--important to your plans, to your (or your organization's) success or failure.  Note that there are two criteria here.  First, meaningful questions are important.  Second, they are yours.  The answers to meaningful questions almost, by definition, have consequences.  The answers to these questions tend to compel decisions or, at least, further study.

It is entirely possible, however, to spend a lot of time on questions which are both of dubious relevance to you and are not particularly important.  The Brits have a lovely word for this, bikesheddingIt captures our willingness to argue for hours about what color to paint the bikeshed while ignoring much harder and more consequential questions.  Bikeshedding, in short, allows us to distract ourselves from our speculations and our worries and feel like we are still getting something done.

Next:  What do you control?