Thinking forward, tales of traveling in time

Forward thinking. Reasoning forward. Is it what sets today’s visionaries and great performers apart? Is reasoning or thinking backward, including past trends, decisions, experiences and knowledge, part of this forward thinking? Do we need the past as a reference? If so, how important is what we know today to our thinking into the future? Some musings on different cases.

Forward implies movement, from one point to the other. Forward is usually perceived positive and backward negative. Forward is progress. Thinking beyond “here”, “now”, “what we know”, and “current state”. You are able to anticipate, consider options and potential consequences of future actions or outcomes. There is a time and space dimension associated to thinking “ahead” and back again.

 - Thinking math
 - Thinking finance, Olympics and past performance
 - Thinking management and entrepreneurship
 - Thinking life

Thinking math

ThinkingImagine working on a complex math problem. Imagine not finding the strategy to solve and not coming up with the solution. You hit a closed door and cannot find the key. Imagine reading the problem’s answer and possible strategy to solve. From the other side of the door or with guidance from a locksmith, you “see” it; opening the door was possible with the tools you had. You think: yes, logical, and understand backwards. Putting the puzzle pieces back together seems simple. There is, however, a profound difference between understanding backward and understanding forward to take appropriate action and solve to open that door. ↑Back to top↑

Thinking finance, Olympics and past performance

You are probably familiar with the saying “past performance does not guarantee future performance” (think: a Fund manager’s disclaimer). Yet, we use past performance and behaviors as predictors for future performance all the time. The assumption is that if there is a consistent pattern in the past, the future is most likely to continue that way. On the other hand, we cannot always predict the particulars, possibly only the direction. Note that both the extrapolation and the general direction require things to remain relatively stable, so no disruptors, to hold “true”.

January 2012 Medal Prediction Canoe Sprint K1M 1000m

Let’s take a look at an interesting case related to Olympic medal predictions for London 2012. USA Today and Infostrada Sports developed an Olympic Medal Tracker that “projects the winners in each medal event for the 2012 London Olympics, based on an algorithm that monitors athletes’ performances leading up to the Games”. (in: USA Today’s Projecting the 2012 London Olympics medalists) Consistent excellent performance [of the past] suggests who are the biggest contenders and winners. Surely these consistent excellent performers do something right or better than their less successful athletes. On the other hand, can a measure of best current performances actually reliably predict medal winners? Aren’t there other factors at play? With variables being equal, some athletes possibly think forward and backward better than others. In addition, the athletes have to successfully execute on this thinking, constantly. Without implementation, there would be no performance. ↑Back to top↑

Thinking management and entrepreneurship

Academic research by Saras Sarasvathy has revealed two distinct patterns on decision-making and thinking. Successful professional managers predominantly use one way of thinking, called “causal reasoning”, while successful entrepreneurs predominantly use another reasoning pattern, called “effectual reasoning”. Below some further study insights with selected excerpts from Leigh Buchanan’s splendid article How Great Entrepreneurs Think in Inc. Magazine.

EntrepreneurshipEntrepreneurs are brilliant improvisers who do not start out with concrete goals but constantly assess how to use their personal strengths and whatever resources they have at hand to develop goals and opportunities on the fly, while creatively reacting to contingencies in the environment. So an improvisation process, where the starting point is not having concrete goals but the goals evolve and get established along the way, characterizes effectual reasoning. It is not that entrepreneurs do not have goals, only that those goals are broad and, like luggage, may shift during flight. Rather than do traditional market research, meticulously segment customers according to potential return and do extensive planning, entrepreneurs itch to get to market as quickly and cheaply as possible. Sarasvathy calls this principle “affordable loss”. Moreover, entrepreneurs allow whomever they encounter on the journey, such as suppliers, advisers, customers, to shape their businesses. Over time when companies grow, entrepreneurs do however also adopt more formal research and planning practices.

In contrast, corporate executives, also enormously successful in their chosen field, set a goal and diligently seek the best ways to achieve it. They know exactly where they are going and follow a prescribed path, such as an efficient and cost-effective one, to get there. So presuming given well-specified goals, and finding the best ways to achieve this goal, characterizes causal reasoning. Also reasonably reliable predictions about the future are made because causes and histories are well understood, as if it is a static linear world. The environment or context such as the market is independent.

Remarkably, between the two ways of thinking there is a difference in beliefs regarding control, prediction and the future. If you can predict the future to a certain extent you can control it (managers) vs. If you can control the future to a certain extent you do not need to predict it (entrepreneurs). ↑Back to top↑

Thinking life

Life can only be understood backwards; but it must be lived forwards.
– Kierkegaard

Where in time is your attention going mostly? The maxims “living in the present” and “live life now” are quite popular nowadays. It tells us to enjoy, appreciate and be aware of “now”. Many people think of what is ahead but are somehow not often present in the present, as in “life happens while you are making other plans.” Other people may just look back often, drawing their attention to the past, while life happens or catches up on them.

Owl in deep thought
Photo by Grey Wulf, Sheffield UK

If people and organizations can change, does that make the past to some extent irrelevant? Or are the books on personal change nonsense because people cannot relieve the shackles from the past; you have to work with the cards that you have been dealt? A young start-up company without a glorious history may perform extremely well consistently, after some ups and downs, whereas established firms, which were successful in the past, may miss opportunities and become unsuccessful. It seems that you cannot take the past and future for granted but don’t have to stick with it either.

Reflecting backward, examining results of past actions and learning from them to act today and think forward, being proactive for tomorrow, is useful. At the same time, it makes sense to loosen your grip on what the future holds, shifting your life, goals and actions with opportunities and changes that arise and fit the context, which you can influence. Darwin’s “survival of the fittest” extrapolated to thinking our life, goals and endeavors? Why not allow some space and time for change, adaptation and learning, and what the future holds. And who knows? Perhaps more things become possible than you think.

Related posts on this website
• What are you thinking? The influence of language we use
• Preparing kids for jobs we can’t imagine yet
• Finding and doing what you love
Steve Jobs: “You can’t connect the dots looking forward; you can only connect them looking backwards. So you have to trust that the dots will somehow connect in your future. You have to trust in something — your gut, destiny, life, karma, whatever.”

Related links elsewhere
Society for effectual action – Research Community Effectuation fundamentally rethinks. How entrepreneurship is researched and taught throughout the world.
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2 thoughts on “Thinking forward, tales of traveling in time

    1. Many thanks Dena. Loved the quote too. I like how great philosophers’ thoughts and ideas activate people’s thinking and interpretation. Such an inspiration!

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