When Marty McFly travelled by hoverboard in Back to the Future, it was pure science fiction. But when Jason Bradbury from The Gadget Show appeared to repeat the stunt in Piccadilly Circus in 2015 (above), the gap between fiction and reality appeared to be rather smaller than the writers had intended.
The ability of sci-fi to pre-empt reality is at the heart of SciFutures, a company based in California (where else?) whose clients commission stories to help executives imagine how their business might be affected by technological developments. With clients including Visa, Ford, Pepsi, Samsung, NATO and the US Navy, SciFutures appear to have found an unmet need, not to mention keeping some underemployed writers out of Starbucks.
The Problem with the Future
The thing is that the future has a funny habit of turning up. And it often ignores the plan about what it’s supposed to look like. Which means planning for it involves significantly more guesswork than the newly minted MBAs in the strategy cell will ever actually admit. The issue here is not the assumptions implicit in the guesswork (that’s what we do any time we make a decision about anything), it’s the failing to make the assumptions explicit and/or to explore alternative guesswork. And then feeling surprised when our decisions and plans fail to survive the inconvenient collision with reality
The problem, for those faced with planning and decision-making, is that the future is inherently unknowable. And it was unknowable before the term VUCA came into being. For those unfamiliar VUCA (volatility, uncertainty, complexity and ambiguity) is a term which was coined by the US Army War College in the 90s as a frame of reference through which to view the post-Cold War world. Personally, I see volatility, uncertainty and complexity all as sources of ambiguity – this is surely the crux of the issue: how to make plans when faced with ambiguity.
Preparing for the Unknown and Unknowable
Now there are degrees of ambiguity and plenty of situations for which we can plan ahead without worrying too much about it, but in any situation where there are significant variables outside of our control, it is often difficult or impossible to predict how those variables will affect us. A heart surgeon cannot know what complications might arise in an operation. In 2007, no money manager was predicting 10 years of near-zero interest rates. And in my own previous life as a fighter pilot, the combined effects of technology, weather, the independent wills of our adversaries and random acts of luck (good or bad) meant that von Moltke’s prediction was never disproven: ‘no plan survives first contact with the enemy’. So how does one prepare for the unknown or unknowable?
- Stress test your thinking. Daniel Kahneman, Nobel prize winner and author of Thinking Fast and Slow wrote: ‘We can be blind to the obvious; we are also blind to our blindness’, and: ‘It is easier to recognise mistakes in other people’s thinking than our own’. The challenge is to accept that we may be viewing an issue through a very narrow frame of reference and invite others to stress test our thinking. The military and intelligence agencies use a process called Red Teaming to stress-test the underlying assumptions in a plan, and then to role play its execution, simulating high-consequence decisions in a low-risk environment in order to identify knowledge gaps, new risks and further actions required.
One famous example of the concept was the Red Team formed by the CIA to test the hypothesis that Osama bin Laden was in the compound in Abbottabad, Pakistan. All of the operational risks of that mission were underpinned by one massive assumption – that bin Laden was there. With some experience in the field of intelligence analysis and ambiguity, the CIA actively tested that assumption before proceeding.
- Think Plan B. For the ‘known unknowns’, scenarios which you can imagine might occur, but can’t predict exactly if or when, think about Plan B. I say, ‘think about’ plan B, rather than ‘make’, because even Plan B won’t be ideal. ‘No Plan B survives…’. However, if you are regularly and routinely thinking about your options, you start to form a mental database of those options. And when things do go wrong dip in the database and withdraw the best approximation to the situation you are facing. You don’t just make it up. The aim here is to make the high-pressure decisions in low pressure environments.
The real value is in the combination of thinking ahead and learning from actual experience. To quote Captain Chesley Sullenberger, who famously landed US Airways Flight 1549 in the Hudson River: ‘For 42 years, I’ve been making small regular deposits in the bank of experience, education and training. And on Jan 15, the balance was sufficient that I could make a very large withdrawal.’
- Align then empower. But about the unknown unknowns? There is no simple process or rule which can be designed for the genuinely unknown or unknowable. Rather than attempting to give people a full set of solutions, the key is to equip them a set of rules, guiding principles and default procedures, together with both functional and behavioural training, and to empower them to make decisions to deal with the unique situations they end up facing.
Good quality decisions in complex, dynamic environments also require an understanding of the wider context of the decision. Not just what are we trying to achieve, but also why. What is my boss trying to achieve? What is my boss’ boss trying to achieve? Empowerment is a powerful tool and an essential precursor to agility, but it cannot be deployed in isolation. Align THEN empower.
The Here and Now
Who could have predicted Trump, Brexit, a new Prime Minister? Who can predict the future? The clever ones don’t necessarily try to predict the future, but prepare for a number of alternative futures based on an objective and realistic assessment of conviction and likelihood. However, no matter how objective you think you are, don’t forget Kahneman’s words above. We are spectacularly bad at this stuff. Recognising that is the biggest step towards doing something about it.