Fearless Forecast

Remember Cassandra

Poon King Wang

Director, Lee Kuan Yew Centre for Innovative Cities

Hell hath no fury like an Apollo spurned.

When the Greek god Apollo was spurned by Cassandra, the most beautiful princess in the city of Troy, he flipped. He then flipped the powers of prophecy he had gifted to her into a curse: Cassandra would still be able to predict the future, but no one would believe her. Hence when she warned that Greeks were hiding in the giant wooden horse, her fellow Trojans ignored her. No prizes for predicting what happened next.

Cassandra's predictions were unheeded, but her predicament offers lessons that should not be. Cassandra's challenges -- curse notwithstanding -- are instructive for those of us who have to make fearless forecasts.

A prediction's power lies not only in the giving of the prediction, but also in whether the prediction is received. Cassandra's problem was that even though she could see the future, her fellow citizens did not believe that she could. Whatever she said was not received, much less acted upon. Her predictions might as well have fallen on deaf ears.

There are two reasons for that. The first is that the predictions must be understood, to have a better chance of being received and accepted. According to a Hidden Brain podcast about why we heed or ignore warnings (which coincidentally was broadcasted as I was writing this), Cassandra spoke in "symbols and metaphors" and in "cryptic language". She did not spell out the specifics. That made it hard for anyone to know for sure what she meant and what they needed to do. The modern-day parallel would be the many reports and speeches that are laden with jargon and general proclamations. We never quite know what to do with them, and that is if we can make sense of the buzzwords to begin with.

A second reason is that predictions that are diametrically opposed to the prevailing zeitgeist will often fail to stick. When Cassandra warned about the wooden horse, her fellow Trojans were in no mood for a damp squib. They were in fact in a celebratory mood. They had been fighting the Greeks for 10 years, and now it looked like the Greeks had finally decided to retreat, leaving only the wooden horse. They saw the horse as a hard-won war prize, and not as a peril as Cassandra perceived. The modern-day parallel is this: imagine your company and country is having a stellar year, and you warn that success is breeding complacency and sowing seeds for future failure. Not cool. And you do not need to be a Cassandra to predict the odds of you succeeding.

How then do we ensure that we do not become modern-day Cassandras, with our predictions ending up unheeded? There are several ways to improve the odds that the predictions we give are received.

First, establish your credentials as someone who can speak with authority on whatever you are predicting. Or find somewhere that will accept your authority. Or if you are appointing someone to help you make predictions, make sure you give or bolster their authority.

Two, speak plainly and in specifics. A good test is whether your predictions tell you what you need to do next and if you are willing to do so -- the proverbial "practice what you preach" (or in this case, predict).

Lastly, do not oppose the prevailing zeitgeist. Do not ask people to be like salmon, to swim upstream and against the flow, because we all know what happens when the salmon reaches the top. Instead pivot from the present. Find ways to draw links to the today, so that tomorrow feels like a plausible future from the present.

We are fortunate that the consequences today are not as dire as Cassandra's. But for all her misfortune, Cassandra was the lucky one in an important way: she was given the gift of prophecy, and so her predictions were always right the first time round, every time. The rest of us, who I wager do not have a Greek god romancing us and gifting us powers, are less lucky. We are unlikely to get our predictions right the first time, all the time.

It is futile to try to be always right. But what we can do is to always get it right. This was how former Intel CEO Andy Grove described former Apple CEO Steve Jobs in the book Radical Candour. Mr Grove said that Mr Jobs manages "always to get it right". When he was challenged on the veracity of this, he pointed out that he did not say Mr Jobs is "always right". Mr Grove explained: Mr Jobs gets things wrong too, but because he demands that others tell him so, he corrects course and "always gets it right in the end".

Hence it is not enough to establish our credentials and authority, speak in specifics plainly, and pivot from the present. We have to do one more thing -- we must have someone who is able to tell us we are wrong, so that we can make it right.

And in this respect, Cassandra leaves us one last lesson that should not go unheeded. Her fellow Trojans were wrong, and she was able to tell them they were wrong, but they did nothing to right the wrong. In the world of fearless forecasts then, it is not just about getting things right.

It is also about making them right.

Lee Kuan Yew Centre for Innovative Cities is a research institute in the Singapore University of Technology and Design, which seeks to stimulate thinking and research on the critical issues of cities and urbanization, and explore the integrated use of technology, design and policy to provide urban solutions. Visit lkycic.sutd.edu.sg for more information.