When I first spotted Get There Early, I thought it was a guide to retiring early. When I picked it up, the subtitle -- Sensing the Future to Compete in the Present -- quickly disabused me of that notion. But after reading it, I realized that although it wasn't written with the individual investor in mind, it can make the reader a better forecaster and, by extension, a better investor.
Turn foresight into action
The book's author, Bob Johansen, who is a distinguished fellow at the Institute for the Future, begins by making a strong case for how thinking ahead can benefit a business. For example, in 1999, Procter & Gamble's (NYSE: PG ) Global Leadership Council realized how important biotechnology was becoming to its business. It further recognized that few of its executives had much experience in the area.
The council, therefore, took the innovative step of creating a reverse mentoring program so its executives -- including its current CEO, A.G. Lafley – could be mentored by younger biotech scientists. Today, biotechnology is an active part of many of P&G's product strategies.
Decisions by BASF, Ford (NYSE: F ) , and Boeing (NYSE: BA ) to establish research and development centers in the emerging field of nanotechnology were centered on much the same idea -- turning foresight into action.
Uncouple prediction from forecasting
Throughout the book, Johansen argues that even though the future is unknowable, forecasting is still important. In fact, he says that uncertainty makes forecasting even more important.
For instance, because of demographic trends, it might have been easy to predict that the future growth of video gaming would be static. But Nintendo accurately forecast that continued advances in sensor technology would soon allow the company to develop a new video remote so simple to use that anyone could use it. The Wii's success was the result.
The benefit of uncoupling is that it allows people to approach problems from a different perspective. For example, Apple (Nasdaq: AAPL ) recently announced plans to make a solar-powered iPod. It's too early to tell whether it will become a winner in the commercial marketplace. But "getting there early" means going beyond existing technology. Similarly, companies like Nike (NYSE: NKE ) ought to contemplate how continued advances in flexible electronics and solar textiles might let "solar-power shirts" recharge cell phones, MP3 players, and laptops.
Keep an open mind
Conversly, the author warns against adopting a fixed mind-set with regard to the future. Too often, people see only what fits in their preconceived worldview. For example, in the above case, advances in battery technology could easily make solar-powered iPods or laptops unnecessary.
For my part, I tend to be very optimistic about the potential of both thin-film photovoltaics and robotic-assisted surgeries. Johansen argues that it is all that much more important for me to guard against fitting all future-related technological advances into this optimistic mind-set.
One particular strategy he suggests is to "think the unthinkable." For instance, advances in clean coal technology and nuclear power might make large-scale thin-film photovoltaic solar farms unnecessary; similarly, medical advances in cancer and heart disease treatments might substantially reduce the number of robotic-assisted surgeries that companies like Intuitive Surgical (Nasdaq: ISRG ) and Hansen Medical (Nasdaq: HNSN ) perform in the future.
One method for protecting against this danger is to regularly review your stocks and revisit whether the underlying assumptions that initally made the stock so attractive are still valid.
Be comfortable with being uncomfortable
All too often, people -- especially investors -- have a bias toward action. This, of course, is all fine and well, unless the action is wrong. The future is going to be very fluid and investors will need to work hard at staying flexible. Johansen's solution: Ask a lot of questions; reflect more, respond less; and learn to embrace ambiguity. It's good advice for business executives and investors alike -- especially if the thing you are hoping to "get there early" for is retirement.
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