Going Forwards By Looking Backwards

A lot is going on at the mighty Snedden Campbell just now so the blizzard of blog posts hasn’t been much of a blizzard – more the odd isolated flake*.

However, here’s one I’ve been thinking over for a while.

If you’re feeling a little down about events and various prophecies of doom, it’s always worth taking a look at the newspaper archives from a few years back to read what the pundits were saying.

What you’ll notice is that they are almost invariably wrong. My favourites were all the financial predictions by economists from 2007 explaining how 2008 was going to be a fantastic year. Go back to the early 1980s, and it was 50/50 whether we’d be here at all. Also, where are all those hoverboards we’re supposed to have and why did predictions of the future from more than ten years ago fail to predict that we’d all obsess over small handheld devices trying to make our dogs famous by posting videos of them falling off furniture? What the Terminator franchise never took account of was that we’d be too busy sharing memes to notice the end of days.

If you get a big group of random people to make predictions about events ranging from politics to long term bank interest rates, eventually some of the predictions you get will be right. Wait long enough and obtain enough projections, and some of them will be remarkably prescient. Perhaps even right enough to persuade you that you’re in the presence of genius.

And then I read a comment by Michael Portillo. He was Chief Secretary to the Treasury in the UK during the 1990s under Prime Minister John Major (a man so spectacularly dull and devoid of character traits that the satirical puppet show “Spitting Image” was reduced to taking the mickey out of him eating peas). Portillo now calls himself Michael and has reinvented himself as a completely harmless presenter of completely harmless TV documentaries.

Anyway, somebody asked him about the reliability of government economists predicting the financial future of the UK and the global economy and how seriously one should take their advice. I’m paraphrasing here, but the gist of his response was, “They couldn’t reliably tell me what happened last week so why anyone would rely on them to predict the future is beyond me.”

I’d always thought that history was relatively straightforward. I mean you’re dealing with stuff that’s already happened.

And then I got to know some professional historians. Their message is that our view of the past is utterly incomplete.

Now, perhaps you can be sure of some dates. But you can only be sure of them if you know if you’re dealing with the Julian or Gregorian calendar. You also need to know if the year in question ran April to March as i did until the 18th Century in Britain, or January to December so that you can date it under our present conventions. Perhaps you could be sure of some of the prominent personalities (provided that they existed in the first place), however, once you start asking serious questions of why things turned out the way that they did then, good luck.

A quite famous historian and author bought me lunch last year (he probably thought I was someone else). He explained that while his books, almost whether he liked it or not, gave a veneer of certainty to events from the past, the reality was that even now, most of our knowledge of things like Britain from 500 – 1000CE depends on single sources copied out by generations of short-sighted monks in cold scriptoria.

So what does this have to do with business? This is a business blog, right?

Well, it has a lot to do with business. We are all acutely aware, or a least we should be, that if you control the past or perceptions of the past, then you can control the present and the future. Up here in the snowy wastes that Snedden Campbell has its base, our local independence movement relies very heavily on a particular view of Scottish medieval and early modern history. The present ructions over the departure of our island from the mainland way of doing things reflect opposing views of a shared history far too complicated for a 30-second soundbite.

The Apollo Moon missions are as well documented as any historical event can be, and literally, hundreds of thousands of witnesses to the games are still alive and giving oral testimony as to what they saw and did. And yet slightly more than one in ten adults doesn’t believe any of it.

I think what I’m saying today is that when we run a business, our perception of what we have done in the past and areas of received wisdom based on experience, it is all too easy for us to see the linear narrative that we want to see that fits our prejudices of how clever we are. Of course, our abilities pre-ordained the eventual success of our enterprises. Because we steered our companies accurately before it follows that our understanding of future events is a cut above everyone else’s and that therefore our predictions of the future are correct and yours are not.

I would suggest dear reader that given our inability to determine our past with any degree of objective accuracy then never making predictions and especially never making predictions about the future is wise counsel.

Of course, this doesn’t mean that you shouldn’t analyse various courses of action and try and think through the consequences of what you’re trying to achieve, but you have to accept that dumb luck is just as likely to help as anything else.

Like Mike Tyson said, “Everyone has a plan until they get hit in the mouth.”

*See also Donald Trump

Posted on: 29th October 2019 by Ivor Campbell

Into his fourth decade of search Ivor has a voice with stories to tell, observations to make and the odd picture to share. Mostly related to the day job.

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