One of the most appealing myths about entrepreneurship, repeated sometimes even at Inc., is that to succeed, you have to be a visionary. You need to be able to see years into the future and disrupt incumbents by getting there first. It's a charming conceit, and it fits well with the heroic image of Steve Jobs, Elon Musk, and so on. However, business doesn't usually work that way.
True foresight is vanishingly rare, as documented by psychologist Philip E. Tetlock, now at Wharton. Tetlock's research, famous in behavioral economics circles, tracked thousands of forecasts by experts over decades and rated them for accuracy (incredibly, no one had done that before). He found that expert forecasts were, on average, no more accurate than random guesswork, and the most famous experts were least accurate of all.
One group of forecasters did better, though, not because of how smart or how well resourced they were, but because of how they thought. Unlike media darlings, who tend to interpret the future through an unwavering set of beliefs and to reduce complex issues to a simple, dramatic story, the more accurate forecasters tend to be less confident that they know how things will turn out. They tend to synthesize many views and are quick to adjust to new information.
While Tetlock's research covered geopolitical and economic predictions, the relevance to business is pretty obvious. Steve Blank and Eric Ries's lean startup philosophy is all about testing theories--and quickly abandoning those that fail. The entrepreneur and VC Randy Komisar, now a partner at Kleiner Perkins, observed that the plans of even talented founders were almost always wrong. He scores "getting to Plan B" not a sign of failure but an essential milestone on the path to success. The visionary thing, in other words, is way less important than other "things." The adaptability thing. The persistence thing. The leadership thing. Or the guts thing.
You can see all this play out dramatically in several key stories in this issue. Roy and Ryan Seiders's creation of the $500 million Yeti brand of outdoor gear was born of a design flaw discovered when Roy was building a better boat. In "The Answer Man," NerdWallet co-founder Tim Chen, who is self-correcting almost to a fault, saved his business by admitting a crucial error and imposing a wrenching reorganization on his company. Even Kevin Plank, who can lay a better claim to true visionary status than 95 percent of founders, is now betting on a change in direction he never could have predicted when he founded Under Armour in 1995.
Imagining that you have to foresee the future to succeed is an unrealistic burden, and one that might only make success harder. The fact is, what people loosely call your vision is really just a hypothesis. You know that. Your mission as founder is to organize--and, if necessary, reorganize--people to test it until you get it right. That may be less heroic than being a visionary, but it's a lot more attainable.