Why it’s better to prepare for multiple futures, rather than striving to accurately predict just one

This article focuses on two key issues associated with the commonly used approaches to forward-looking research (I am particularly thinking of the more traditional product profile tests, etc.). The issues are:

  1. The current emphasis on predicting only one future – when multiple futures are possible.
  1. The desire for accurate predictions – potentially without the provision of any insights on the actions that need to be taken to prepare for the potential futures, especially disruptive ones.

Who better to discuss this topic with than Mark Earls (aka The HERDmeister), award-winning author and leading thinker in the areas of human behaviour, marketing and communications?

Our conversation started with the need to research, provide insights on and plan for multiple futures, rather than focusing on accurately predicting just one potential future. This approach is one of the core tools within foresight research, in particular the need to consider the ‘wild card’ possibilities – a global pandemic being one such possibility, which clearly became a reality when COVID-19 hit in late–2019/early–2020) – as well as the more likely potential futures.

Within the pharma industry, this broader type of thinking is beneficial at two points in the planning cycle: at the start, while a product is in its earlier trial phases (around five years before approval); and then revisiting in the final year or two before launch, to test and refine assumptions.

Why is it important to consider some ‘wild card’ futures?

Mark mentioned a research study that explored why certain roles (and organisations) find it easier than the rest of us to embrace new things as opportunities. He observed how some of these ‘special people’, often entrepreneurs, see the new as familiar, and are comfortable stepping towards it. Familiar, literally, because they have already imagined something like this in their contemplation of several potential, disruptive futures. The rest of us, meanwhile, are scratching our heads … still processing what has happened, not even getting to the point of being able to think about how to react. Moreover, in this situation it is often too late to make any meaningful decisions, as actions need to have already taken place – i.e. before the future occurrence ¬– to have an impact.

The COVID-19 pandemic highlights how this situation is arguably even more true when groups of people or organisations need to make a collective decision. Just look at the South Korean response – where previous experience with MERS highlighted the need to be pandemic prepared – in comparison to the UK’s, where some pandemic scenarios had been discussed but no decisions made or actions taken. As of 16 July 2021, South Korea had a total of 175,046 cases/51+ million population whereas the UK had 5,281,098 cases/68+ million population. The figures speak for themselves.

Forward thinking and planning makes an organisation truly agile

Indeed, this is a goal that I have heard being set for multiple pharma companies. Such is the power and importance of both perceiving and preparing for multiple futures that, in 2019, the OECD released a paper, Strategic Foresight for Better Policies, aimed at world governments.

My discussion with Mark then led on to the second major point of the interview: the need to move the focus from merely making accurate predictions to taking tangible steps to prepare for the future/s ahead. The UK government probably had some very accurate predictions on the likelihood of a respiratory virus pandemic taking place, but what real preparations were made? Mark talked about assigning probabilities to different futures, and using this to weight the potential impact – something he originally explored in Were you still up when Bob called it for Kerry” (MRS 2005). He likens the process to what an investment analyst might do: what are all the bets I’ve got in place and how might I weigh them against each other?

Mark raised an interesting proposition: what if mind-reading were to become technologically possible? And what are insight agencies and functions within pharma companies doing to prepare for this potential scenario? He pointed out that it is all too easy to purposefully avoid thinking about such a disruptive ‘wild card’ future, but this one may yet become a reality. Facebook is already investing heavily in a ‘mind reading’ wrist-based device, and while their focus may currently be on how to create a virtual keyboard, who knows where this could lead?

Facebook is already investing heavily in a ‘mind reading’ wrist-based device, and while their focus may currently be on how to create a virtual keyboard, who knows where this could lead?

3 things to think about when predicting the future

What we do know from behavioural science is that any actions that need to be taken in preparation for various future scenarios must be broken down into ‘easy steps’ if they are to prove successful. And it is often the case that the initial steps need only be small ones – for example, Mark suggested it’s worth checking to make sure that someone in the client team has contacts within any companies that may be disrupters within their space.  

This point comes back to our forward-looking research. Should our focus be on telling a client, at an empirical level, the % of patients who will potentially be prescribed Product X? Or would it not be better if we identified multiple potential future scenarios, ranging from the most likely to the most disruptive, and then explored the probability of these happening  – and potentially the % of patients who would be prescribed Product X in each scenario? Then, moving forward with this approach, our actionable recommendations (the ‘golden nuggets’ we deliver) could be chunked down into ‘easy steps’ that could be taken to tackle the problems within the potential futures. This method – which would include a hands-on working session to identify who should take which steps – would enable our clients to prepare effectively for whatever the future might bring.

This lively discussion with Mark ended with him giving the following three cogent pieces of advice on predicting the future:

  1. Make it easy.
  2. Explore multiple potential futures.
  3. Keep asking yourself: What am I going to do? What am I going to do? What am I going to do?

Because, at the end of the day, the best descriptive model of the future – however precise, however accurate it turns out to be as a prediction – is useless unless you do something about it.

For more detail on this topic, please check out Learning from the Future (hbr.org).

This is an important and fascinating topic, and I am committed to exploring how foresight approaches can be used to innovate forward-looking research and make a positive impact on marketing within the pharma industry.

To help stimulate new thinking, I am excited to be talking in the coming weeks with six influential experts in the healthcare space.

About Lucy Ireland

Lucy has worked in the pharmaceutical market research space for 23 years, leading research from the UK, USA and Hong Kong. She is a true multi-methodologist, having led syndicated and custom research teams as well as the development of new methodologies within quantitative and secondary research.

Lucy is passionate about innovation within the healthcare market research space. She often questions why we conduct research in a certain way to explore if there is space to innovate processes, approaches and the actual questions we ask.

Lucy started her journey in market research at Isis Research (which became Synovate Health and now Ipsos health). She then learnt a lot about what doctors talk about online at medeConnect (part of Doctors.net.uk), before joining Hall & Partners in 2013.

Lucy Ireland
Lucy Ireland
Partner, Hall & Partners Health

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