On Topic: Loose coins, beer money and planning for the future

This is one of those anecdotes that you’re probably not going to believe, for several perfectly understandable reasons, but that I assure you is true. At least, to the best of my recollection.

I’m not certain precisely when this was, but surely back before I started elementary school, an uncle used to take me into one of his favorite corner bars. A dimly lit, seedy and perfectly charming place.

There, he would bet patrons that I could guess the flip of coin — heads or tails. He’d win a beer on them, and I pocketed the money — never more than dimes and usually pennies, if I recall correctly. But still.

We did quite well, and we both found it mutually advantageous. My parents, on the other hand, once they learned how I’d come by the cash, and where that activity was occurring, saw none of the upsides of our business venture and shut it down.

Now, I can’t tell you today with any surety how my six-or-so-year-old self managed successfully to predict the outcomes of coin tosses with enough frequency to make my uncle’s business plan a worthwhile endeavor. But I suspect, in adult hindsight, it had something to do with determining my odds always were 50-50.

No matter what the previous handful of results might have been — there were only two possible outcomes — the next toss still was going to be 50-50, right? So maybe I just continued shouting out, “Heads!”

And maybe I also figured the more drinking that went on among my uncle’s cronies, the less it mattered what I forecast.


In either case, I did develop a slight fascination with the notion of probability. If we take one action, what are the possible outcomes — positive and negative? Or put another way, look at all imaginable results before you leap.

I bring this up because Wall Street Journal tech columnist Christopher Mims earlier this month touted the benefits of business decision-makers thinking like futurists.

No, not those people on the covers of the National Enquirer who warn us of outer-space invaders taking over the halls of Congress. (That happened years ago, for goodness sake.)

Mims means consultants brought in to help business and government leaders figure out “as many hypothetical futures as they can” — all the better to be prepared for whatever eventualities the future might bring.

Or to uncover previously unrecognized paths.

So, more than the binary options of heads or tails, yes or no, up or down, but put on the table for examination a multitude of outcomes — likely and otherwise.

Mims notes International Business Machines, Ford Motor Co. and even the U.S. Defense Department have futurists on hand.

If we’re contemplating taking a specific course of action — set new departmental goals, acquire a competitor, let go a clutch of employees — what are the likely outcomes?

And then, give thought to imagining what else could happen.

From little things can come big things, right? Ripples can create waves.

But here’s the bit that’s really key. After good futurists establish their possible scenarios, Mims finds, they expend a fair chunk of effort to disprove those notions. How credible are they?

All the better then to decide what you might want to do in the next weeks or months or years.

And see what you can take advantage of that others may not have foreseen.


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The results could prevent bad decisions or improve good ones. And maybe add some pocket money to your bottom line.


And while we’re gazing into the crystal ball, mark your calendar to join us Thursday, Feb. 9, at the downtown Cedar Rapids Public Library for The Gazette’s first Business Breakfast of the year.

Our topic will be “Creating Development Incentives for our Communities,” and yes, you know we’ll be talking about tax increment financing, or TIFs, among other items.

We will have a remarkable panel of decision-makers on hand, all in the same place at the same time:

l Coralville City Manager Kelly Hayworth

l Cedar Rapids City Manager Jeff Pomeranz

l Developer and Aspect President Steve Emerson

l Iowa State University economist Dave Swenson.

Networking — bring your business cards — and light breakfast will start at 7 a.m., and the program will kick off at 7:45.

Go to or call (319) 398-8345 to reserve your tickets.

Seating is limited. After all, don’t you want to know what the future holds for the Corridor?

l Michael Chevy Castranova is business editor of The Gazette; (319) 398-5873;

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We value your trust and work hard to provide fair, accurate coverage. If you have found an error or omission in our reporting, tell us here.

Or if you have a story idea we should look into? Tell us here.