How Do You Handle an Uncertain Future (with limited resources)?

Amidst the current cacophony about the rise of robots and the future of labor there has emerged the notion of “hybrid” approaches for work that combine human and machine labor. We’re starting to see more and more articles referencing these hybrid approaches and suggesting that they are the future of work and labor. While each of us will naturally have a reaction of some sort to that suggestion (e.g. “no, that’s wrong; robots are going to put us all out of work”), a futurist often has a bit more fun with the issue.

By way of example, while reflecting on the issue this morning, three prominent scenarios occurred to me. Each of these scenarios suggests what role a human-AI hybrid approach to work will play in our future:

  • The new normal for the next era of society – everything is done this way
  • A transition period between the past era of human labor and a coming era of machine labor
  • Just one prominent model of work among several prominent models of labor in the future

Foresight professionals like me will have our particular ways of working on this question, but how would a non-futurist play with this? What different options does a typical business professional have for answering the question of what will be the future of hybrid human-AI work models? How would they go about getting an answer/forecast?

Choosing an Approach

UncertaintySo, how do you work this? Partly it will depend on how critical this uncertainty is for your organization or work. But it also obviously depends in part on your role and the resources you have available. For conversation, let’s assume that you’re an overworked, under-resourced manager at a profitable but not outrageously deep-pocketed organization (not a stretch assumption for most of us, I know). Let’s further assume that you – and whatever higher-ups you have – have gotten really interested in this question and are kicking it around in water cooler/coffee pod maker conversation.

You don’t have six months to spend “working” this futures problem and you most certainly don’t have approval to spend real money for a solid foresight study on this (and if in fact you do, then we’d be totally happy to help you with this!). How can you work this question?

[Note: this is not an analyst’s guide to addressing uncertainty; this is a stretched-too-thin manager’s guide to dealing with an uncertain future and being confident in the approach they choose.]

There are several approaches to choose from and for brevity’s sake we can keep things simple here. Depending on your time, attention span, and motivation, you can choose one of the following:

  • Outsource It: take that market research firm’s latest report or that PowerPoint presentation from the last industry conference you attended and simply insert their conclusions as your planning assumption.
  • Consult the Oracle: bring in a recognized “expert” to talk with your organization and stimulate some new thinking about the issue.
  • Roll with the Hunches: take your own gut reaction or informally poll the gut reactions of your colleagues and simply “think about” the question.
  • Do the Research: by yourself or with other internal or external resources, dig into the history of the question and immerse yourself in the current debates to formulate your own hypothesis/forecast.
  • Be Adaptive: conclude that things are too complex for anyone to predict and instead create a list of indicators that would signal which of the three futures we end up heading towards.

So, What are the Trade-Offs?

It will be obvious to most readers that you can choose more than one of the above approaches. But again, let’s keep it simple and assume that you’re just going to select one approach. What are the trade-offs and considerations inherent to each option?

  • Outsource It: this approach is easy and usually inexpensive, but keep in mind that if you don’t understand their assumptions and biases, then you really don’t know why the future should turn out the way they predict. Think home mortgages and the financial crisis.
  • Consult the Oracle: this approach is also easy and can be relatively inexpensive, but understand that subject matter experts get the future wrong a lot. Pinning your planning assumptions on a single expert’s conclusions is like relying only on a single model to understand the world. All your eggs in one basket, and all that.
  • Roll with the Hunches: human intuition is easy to use (instinctive, really) and can sometimes be quite powerful, but it’s not always the best (sole) source of judgment. Sometimes more data is better, and two heads are better than one…
  • Do the Research: this is the most time intensive of all the approaches listed, and requires you to become really invested in the issue. Of all the approaches this will generate the most insight into the issue (for the researcher, at least), but this is essentially turning the question into a project. Be sure not to fall down the rabbit hole with this one.
  • Be Adaptive: this approach requires at least a little time on your part to think up logical early indicators of the three scenarios. This approach doesn’t bet the farm on one of those futures happening, but you need to be careful to link this approach to other discussions that focus on defining new opportunities and shaping the future. Remember that if you don’t have a destination in mind, any old path will do…

Moving Forward

These are some basic options you have in approaching an issue with an uncertain future. While folks like me of course have a bias towards doing rigorous, long-term futures research before making strategic decisions, the reality is that busy managers often don’t have time or resources to work every challenge as rigorously as they would like. If you find yourself with a future uncertainty to address and you are at a momentary loss for how to proceed, then use the above list to help you quickly figure out which approach is the most practicable for your present situation. Ultimately, we want you to deliberately pick the option that makes the most sense for your situation and for you to be confident in the “insights” you take away from it.

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