Carnac the Magnificent on Strategic Foresight

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Part of being a strategic leader is the ability to accurately forecast future trends, obstacles, and opportunities. I’m not sure if anyone has done this better than Carnac the Magnificent.

Carnac the Magnificent was a recurring character played by Johnny Carson on The Tonight Show. Referred to as the “mystic from the East”, Carnac would psychically answer unfamiliar questions. Ed McMahon, Johnny’s longtime partner, began each segment with:

I hold in my hand the envelopes. As a child of four can plainly see, these envelopes have been hermetically sealed…No one knows the contents of these envelopes, but you, in your borderline divine and mystical way, will ascertain the answers having never before seen the questions.

Ed then handed Carnac an envelope. Carnac held the envelope to his forehead while “divining” the answer before tearing it open and removing the index card with the question. For instance, Carnac would say, “The La Brea Tar Pits.” When he opened the envelope, the question would be, “What do you have left after eating the La Brea Tar Peaches?”

Unfortunately, most of us don’t have Carnac’s clairvoyant talents. We need to rely on our gut instincts, intelligence, and other methods of deduction. That’s a shame considering Philip Tetlock’s research which found experts to be terrible forecasters. While this may sound bleak, thankfully Tetlock’s work with the Good Judgment Project, a study aimed at finding better ways to see into the future, has discovered three approaches we can all utilize to yield more effective foresight:

  1. Basic training in reasoning and common biases helps to produce better forecasts.
  2. Teams of forecasters who argue and debate produce better predictions than those working by themself.
  3. Those who practice actively open-minded thinking – are willing to change their minds, seek conflicting opinions – prosper as forecasters.

As leaders, there’s no one handing us an envelope and asking us to perform our prophecy skills. It’s up to us to recognize when foresight is perceptible. When these occasions arise, we must be open to notions that may be contradictory (and inconvenient) to our current trajectory. Be “the great seer, soothsayer, and sage” in your organization. You don’t need Carnac’s hat or psychic abilities, just his sensibility.

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