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Peter Drucker: Discern the Future That Has Already Happened

Turn changes into opportunities.

Key points

  • Act on the anticipation of the effects of events and trends.
  • Take advantage of online/print sources, demographic data, and government/institutional statistics.
  • Draw inspiration from MacArthur “Genius grant” awardees.
 Ismagilov/Shutterstock
Source: Ismagilov/Shutterstock

"The Future That Has Already Happened" was a crucial theme in the last 40 years of Peter Drucker’s career. He used this as an article title in 1997 for the 75th anniversary edition of Harvard Business Review, but the idea goes back well before that, to his 1964 book Managing for Results.

In my 2013 book Create Your Future the Peter Drucker Way: Developing and Applying a Forward Focused Mindset, I identified this as one of Drucker’s 10 "Elements of the Future" (simplified to one word: inevitability). But what did Drucker really mean by this somewhat unwieldy phrase, and what relevance does it hold for us now? In simplified form, let’s think of it as the anticipation of the effects of events and trends that have already taken place and will unfold over an unknown and probably extended period of time.

Consider this quote from the 2004 compilation The Daily Drucker: “But the most important work of the executive is to identify the changes that have already happened. The important challenge in society, economics, politics, is to exploit the changes that have already occurred and to use them as opportunities. The important thing is to identify the future that has already happened—and to develop a methodology for perceiving and analyzing these changes.”

Developing the Methodology

You don’t have to be an executive to employ the concept, but developing the methodology and putting this concept into operation is not necessarily straightforward. One reason is Drucker didn’t spell out how to put this into action.

However, there are practical and useful approaches for the perception and analysis of these changes. First, what are important current trends in society and organizations, and their potential implications for the future? A few examples of these unfolding trends/events could be self-driving or electric vehicles; artificial intelligence; robotics; Bitcoin//blockchain/cryptocurrencies; plant-based food; and geopolitical threats.

Where are you going to find solid, reliable information about these and other trends? Drucker was a voracious reader and consumer of information. He read widely in newspapers, journals, magazines, and books. (Most of his life was lived before the era of readily available online information.) He was a strategic user of libraries, and learned from his students, teaching colleagues, consulting clients, and many others.

There was a steady supply of books, articles, ideas and more flowing to him from his many friends and professional contacts, meaning that he got an early look at the future. We have the advantage of online information that was unavailable to him.

Key Sources of Future-Oriented Information

In that spirit, consider these five groups of sources for accessing information about how to discern the future:

  1. Human intelligence (people and groups): Learn from your daily interactions with people, or even structured, purposeful interviews. Consider starting or joining a book club that is focused on the future, in which a group of friends/colleagues meet once a month or so to discuss in depth a particular journal article or book. There are more than enough future-oriented books to choose from.
  2. Online and printed sources: Read as widely as possible, in print as well as online. While there is seemingly unlimited material on the web, don’t overlook the premium online sources (available free, with your library card), provided by many public libraries. The same goes if you have access to academic or corporate/organizational libraries. Remember that due to uneven access, paywalls, etc., it’s not true that all of the knowledge of humankind resides in your smartphone.
  3. Demographics: The 19th century French philosopher-sociologist Auguste Comte, whom Drucker, in his 1989 book The New Realities, called the “father of sociology,” is credited with the saying “Demography is destiny.” Drucker regularly studied demographic trends, which was more difficult in the pre-web era. We have access to even more sources online, such as the United Nations Demographic Yearbook and World Bank Open Data.
  4. Government/institutional statistics: The United States government, in particular, publishes highly detailed statistics of all kinds online. Particularly relevant in this context is data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics site, from the U.S. Department of Labor. It’s true that, in a competitive sense, many other people have access to these same statistics and areas of research. However, you’ll undoubtedly interpret them differently from other people, and only you can best determine which statistics are most potentially meaningful for your future.
  5. Awards, honors, and prizes: These are both informational and inspirational, especially the MacArthur Foundation’s MacArthur Fellows Program, popularly known as “Genius Grants”; the AARP Purpose Prize, which honors “extraordinary people ages 50 and older who tap into the power of life experience to build a better future for us all”; and the Templeton Prize, which according to the John Templeton Foundation, “honors individuals whose exemplary achievements advance Sir John Templeton’s philanthropic vision: harnessing the power of the sciences to explore the deepest questions of the universe and humankind’s place and purpose within it.”

These suggestions are a good start and are bound to lead you to other sources. The future that has already happened may be clearer if you, like Drucker, keep an open mind, cast a wide informational net, and determine what is most relevant for you, inside and outside the workplace.

References

Peter F. Drucker (with Joseph A. Maciariello): The Daily Drucker: 366 Days of Insight and Motivation for Getting the Right Things Done (HarperBusiness, 2004)

Peter F. Drucker: The New Realities: In Government and Politics/In Economics and Business/In Society and World View (Harper & Row, 1989)

Peter F. Drucker: Managing For Results: Economic Tasks and Risk-taking Decisions (HarperCollins, 1964)

Bruce Rosenstein: Create Your Future the Peter Drucker Way: Developing and Applying a Forward Focused Mindset (McGraw-Hill, 2013)

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