Whether it's "rocket mail" or self-driving cars, predictions about the future need to be built on a deep understanding of context and consequences in order to inspire confidence. A business futurist offers insights on how to put wishful thinking, whims, and fads aside in favor of a process of structured inquiry.
On June 8, 1959, the U.S. Navy submarine Barbero surfaced just off the Atlantic coast and fired a Regulus cruise missile, aimed at the Naval Air Station in Mayport, Florida. Twenty-two minutes later, the missile struck its target but did not explode.
Shortly thereafter, a crew of sailors cut open the smoldering carcass of the missile and extracted two standard U.S. Post Office mail containers tucked into the compartment where the nuclear warhead would normally have been. The mail was then trucked to the post office in Jacksonville, where it was sorted and sent on its way for delivery. One of the addressees was President Dwight Eisenhower, at the White House.
After witnessing the event, Postmaster General Arthur Summerfield proclaimed it to be "of historic significance to the peoples of the entire world." He predicted, "Before man reaches the moon, mail will be delivered within hours from New York to California, to Britain, to India or Australia by guided missiles. We stand on the threshold of rocket mail."
Some experts believed at the time that missile mail delivery might be feasible; most did not. It's likely that the Navy Department saw the episode as merely an opportunity to showcase its new missile capabilities, and possibly offer a sobering reminder to the Russian military brass, near the peak of the Cold War.
Summerfield, for his part, was wildly enthusiastic. But the concept never flew.
What Were They Thinking?
The "rocket mail" prediction serves as a useful lesson about the ways in which emotion can trump common sense. Was this a case of rational futuring or just wishful thinking? We can sometimes get so excited and seduced by a "gee-whiz" idea that we neglect our responsibility to subject it to a disciplined inquiry.
Let's briefly deconstruct the rocket mail prediction and see what we might learn from it, starting with a few contextual observations.
First, the missile shot proved nothing that wasn't already known. If submarine-launched missiles could deliver nuclear warheads, it would hardly be a stretch of the imagination to conclude that they could deliver mail.
Second, the presenting feasibility questions would surely have to be cost and scalability; the technical questions were mostly settled. Airplane mail, just rising from its infancy at that time, would almost certainly be cheaper and more easily scalable. Airports were sprouting up all over the world, but dedicated launch sites--and target zones--for rocket mail would have to be built, or military sites would have to be co-opted.
Postmaster Summerfield and his advisers probably had good reasons to think it could be done. More likely however, this missed call was the result of either wishful thinking or a lively imagination untethered from reality testing. We can do better.
Imagination is an invaluable resource for thinking about the future or attacking any future-focused problem, but it also needs the support of a diligent, organized thinking process that lends depth to the inquiry. The Structured Inquiry Method (SIM), described briefly here, is a three-step process for deconstructing a presenting problem, issue, or opportunity, using three simple whole-brained thinking tools, and then reassembling it into a coherent picture of what might be realistically possible.
Before we review the SIM process and toolbox, we need to explore the interplay between three complementary human mental processes: imagination, emotion, and logic. I believe we also need a more reliable connotation of the word prediction. …