I have never been a big fan of making public predictions about what might happen with the industry, a company, or a technology. I strongly agree with Alan Kay‘s famous quote: “The best way to predict the future is to invent it.” Of course, inventing the future is hard, especially if you’re spending precious time writing articles stating in unequivocal terms what will happen in the future (e.g. “Why and how the mobile web will win”).

Of course, none of us know precisely what will happen in the future (tired clichés aside), especially for things as complex and volatile as the economy or the technology industry. I frankly am baffled why people continue to make such confident and sometimes smug predictions on top of shaky or non-existent logical foundations. Luckily the web makes it easy to record these predictions and compare them to what really happened in the fullness of time, so there is some measure of accountability.

Of course, this doesn’t mean that it isn’t worth reasoning about potential futures – as long as you follow some simple guidelines:

  • State your evidence – What historical examples, current data, trends, and published plans lead you to your conclusions?
  • State your assumptions – What things have to happen for the potential future to become reality? What makes you think these things will happen?
  • State your conflicts of interest – Do you have something to gain if your predicted future becomes reality?
  • State your confidence level – Where are you on the continuum from wild-ass guess to high-probability outcome?

Another question to ask yourself is “Should you prognosticate publicly or privately?” I believe it’s very helpful to prognosticate privately (e.g. within a company) to help drive product strategy and semi-publicly to help customers chart their course (though in this case stating conflicts of interests is very important, for the obvious ethical reason and for the pragmatic goal of building customer trust). What I personally despise is predicting some future that aligns with your financial and/or philosophical interests and not stating the conflict of interest. It’s fine to advocate for some preferred future, but if you do so please be honest about your motivations – don’t dress up advocacy as prognostication.

Finally, if you have made prognostications, you should periodically perform an honest assessment of what you got right, what you got wrong, and why. Your retrospective should be at least as public as your prediction and you should be brutally honest – for one thing it’s unethical not to be brutally honest and for another thing people will quickly detect if you’re being honest or hedging which will obviously cause them to trust you more or less, respectively.

I originally planned to link to some of the prognosticating articles that put me in this obviously grumpy mood, but I’ve decided not to because A) Why promote trash? and B) I assume other people can think of plenty of examples of this sort of thing. Instead I will point to someone who I think does a great job of doing the reasoned, data-driven prognostication that I find incredibly valuable, Horace Dediu and his web site covering mobile information technology.