Monday, June 26, 2006

Predictions About Predictions

People are always asking consultants to make predictions. Would you be wise to accommodate them?

People especially crave predictions about their financial future. Which stocks will grow? Which dot.coms will fold? What jobs will be best? What should they study to prepare for their future jobs? What books will sell?

Predictions are difficult. Well, no, predictions are actually easy - unless you want some accuracy. Since I'd feel responsible if I hurt somebody with a poor prediction, I seldom accept their invitation to predict.

Predictions About the Success of Books

Let me give some examples, starting with some predictions that, had I listened to them, would have seriously hurt my career as a writer, which in turn would have hurt my career as a consultant. I have published about 40 successful books, yet I still don't understand how publishers make predictions. One of the most successful of my books has been The Psychology of Computer Programming, which was delayed more than a year by a series of publishers who couldn't decide what to do with it.

I first sent it to the company that had published all my previous books without hesitation. Here's what they said: "It just is not worthwhile pushing this project any further. It may be that the concept is good ... but the style and breadth of presentation is just not suitable. It could be that a major overhaul and rewrite will result in a marketable project. On the other hand, it may be wiser to forget the book concept entirely..."

The book was not overhauled, nor rewritten, but it was turned down by another publisher before it finally found a home. It's now been in print for more than 30 years, and has sold over 100,000 copies in English, and many more in other languages. For the company that eventually published it, Psychology sold more copies and made more money than the next five books in their line. In retrospect, the two publishers who declined the project proved not to have much predictive power.

My next highly successful book is An Introduction to General Systems Thinking. Naturally, I sent this manuscript first to the perceptive publishers of Psychology. Here's what they said: "Our referee believes that the market for such a volume is limited. With this in mind, I do not believe it is for us." This one has been in print now for over 25 years, and has also sold more than 100,000 copies.

The same pattern now holds for my third most successful book, The Secrets of Consulting, and the fourth, Are Your Lights On? - how to know what the problem really is, and the fifth, What Did You Say? - the art of giving and receiving feedback. And none of my less successful books, so far, have ever been turned down by publishers!

Experiences such as these have brought me to the reluctant conclusion that publishers know a lot about predicting the future success of a book - but what they know is exactly backwards. Or at least for new and different subjects. Shakespeare goes in and out of fashion, but even at low ebb sells pretty consistently. Algebra books compete with one another in a comfortable, steady market, as do introductory books in such subjects as economics, physics, philosophy. Books in such areas are more predictable, but, then, they're less likely to make a big splash.

In computing, it's not so steady, and predictions are even harder than with books. For publishers of computing books, the subject of tomorrow's best-seller is unknown to today's editor. Editors don't follow the field; they follow the publications in the field. Unless and until somebody else publishes a book on the subject, the editor doesn't consider it a subject at all. Those blinders are evident in the subjects of those books of mine that became the best sellers. Before The Psychology of Computer Programming appeared, the psychology of computer programming was not a subject.

Predictions about Computers

Magazine and newspaper publishers have an easier time than book publishers in a fast-moving field, because their publications generally get trashed before they become obsolete. Who reads last year's magazines to learn about the future of the job market?

But some of my friends do keep old copies of magazines, and I keep them if they contain an article of mine, so some evidence of successful or unsuccessful predictions remains for us to study. One of my friends sent me this prediction from Popular Science, May 1967, page 93:

"Timesharing, most experts agree, is the key to the computer's future, at least for general use. A few years ago, when people thought about household computing at all, they thought of some small, inexpensive, individual unit that would keep track of the family checking account and automatically type out the Christmas card labels. Now we know it won't be like that at all.

"The reason is economic. The bigger and faster the computer, the cheaper it makes each computation. Consequently, it will be far cheaper to build one monster computer with thousands of customers hooked to it than to have small, individual machines in individual homes."

Here's another prediction taken from the September, 1962 Datamation, which I happen to have because I had an article in it. (The article incidentally, was about how to make fake demonstrations, and that seems to be something we're still doing 40 years later. Sound familiar?) Anyway, IBM’s 1962 recruiting ad said,

"IBM programmers ... are devising programs that in turn use machine capability for formulating new programs. They are creating programs that enable computers to diagnose their own faults through self-checking. And they are helping to design the systems that will let scientists and engineers 'talk' to machines in the everyday language of science and engineering."

I don't know about you, but I hope they finish these projects before I retire. I so much want to talk to my computer in the everyday language of science and engineering. (Sound familiar?)

Predictions about Predictions

Patrick Henry once said, "I have but one lamp to guide my life. I only know the future from the past." So, if the past can be used to make predictions, what predictions can we make using past predictions as a guide? Here are some that I've made, for myself:

1. Editors will predict what will be popular in the future. So will recruiters. They will be wrong.

2. People will predict that computers will get so cheap that programmers will be eliminated. They will be wrong.

3. People will predict that thinking and problem solving and other human activities will not be as important in the future as in the past. They will be wrong.

4. People will predict that there won't be anything really new to do with computers (just Christmas-card labels and everyday language of science and engineering). They will be wrong.

So, here's my advice for the future. Read some books, but not too many on one subject—and don't take editors too seriously. Learn the most general of skills—how to think better and how to work with other people more effectively. Then look for assignments where you can apply those talents to build new things—but probably not things that are going to replace people. And, if you follow my predictions, you'll probably have a successful and prosperous consulting career.

But I'm probably wrong.