“Tell me the future!”

It’s a common request. We seem almost hard-wired to seek out prophets and sages, oracles and seers. No wonder then that so many iterations of software product have laid claim to the names of the fortune tellers of the past.

Data-driven decision making is an exercise in charting trendlines. The experience of the past determining that the experience of tomorrow will be much the same, a little bit more of this, a little bit less of that. That’s great, because it’s mostly right. But trend-watching misses significant shifts. The seismic stuff. The things of which real business advantage may be made (or lost).

So here is the rub. Wanting certainty in our future we turn to the prophets who predict the things that are most exciting, the biggest shifts. These “hedgehogs” (using the terms coined in Gardner & Tetlock’s excellent Superforecasting) are the people who are least likely to be right. The “foxes”, cautious trend followers, don’t get the airtime because what they more correctly forecast is tomorrow being incrementally built on today.

All of this is material when it comes to being asked the question “what will the CIO look like in 10 years time”. I have no idea. But I can extrapolate and suggest the skills and capabilities that will be required.

First of all, a fox mindset to keep watch on the steady pace of change that the tech industry so rarely acknowledges. We like quantum leaps, and it’s terribly unfashionable to suggest that maybe things aren’t chasing quite as quickly as they first did. Sure, there are new companies springing up a all over the place. But there was a heck of a lot of auto manufacturers in the 1920s, some thirty years after the internal combustion engine has brought us the car.

Secondly, the ability to create a vision of what the future might hold. Not specifics, but broad brush strokes. A North Star towards which an organisation can head.

Thirdly the ability to distinguish between the stuff of trends and the ability to adapt to the new. To choose between, metaphorically, agile and waterfall. To distinguish between the complicated and the chaotic, and know what to do in either.

Fourth, a fiery curiosity to understand and learn. Without a hunger to explore the new, what hope is there for the organisation in which the CIO resides?

Fifth, an empathetic nature. Ultimately technology is about changing how people operate. Within the constraints of an organisation, don’t think that the sociopathic trends of Silicon Valley will achieve anything meaningful.

And finally humility. An ability to openly acknowledge that nobody has all the answers, nobody can predict the future, but your best hope is to work collaboratively to shape it.

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