Inevitable Surprises & Scenario Learning

Inevitable Surprises by Peter Schwartz

Hang on tight, for we're all going on a roller coaster ride. Science? Politics? Culture? It's all going to change so much you won't recognize it. The gusher of new information doubles in volume every year. Networks reach out to one another, connecting at an ever more furious rate, to the point of merging disciplines. Biotech, nanotech, and the human cognome are fusing. It's all codes and nodes. Our cycles have higher ups and lower downs, and both are relentlessly coming on faster and faster. Amid this turbulence, lots of us are looking for stable ground.

Peter Schartz, a fellow resident of the People's Republic of Berkeley (we live atop the same earthquake fault), offers an enlightened view of how we ought to think about this.

Surprises are the norm. There will be many more moments to come when the assumptions you’ve lived by sudden fall away—inflicting that same queasy feeling you get when an elevator drops a little too suddenly, when an airplane hits an air pocket, or when a roller coaster moves past the top of the curve and lurches into its descent. There will also be beneficial surprises to come—when impossible, unthinkable opportunities and technologies suddenly become real, for you (or someone else) to cultivate, develop, and use.

Historically, upheaval is not a new condition. To be sure, there have been some relatively surprise-free centuries in human history; life for most people in medieval Europe was much the same as it had been for their parents. But since the scientific discoveries of
the seventeenth century, complexity and turbulence in the world at large have been facts of life, looming larger and larger in people’s concerns until today there is hardly anyone unaffected by them.

At the same time most of us still feel emotionally that things should be stable and certain; that once we’re over the next hump of crisis, life will naturally return to tranquil normalcy. And there are things we don’t want to see strapped into a roller coaster: Our country’s security. Our companies and jobs. Our retirement accounts.

Is there a better way to live with this tension than just to hang on for the roller-coaster ride and react to every new surprise thrust at you? Yes, there is. There are still certainties—still facts and factors that we can rely on and even take for granted. There are many things we can rely on, but three of them are most critical to keep in mind in any turbulent environment.

  • First: There will be more surprises.

  • Second: We will be able to deal with them.

  • Third: We can anticipate many of them. In fact, we can make some pretty good assumptions about how most of them will play out.

We can’t know the consequences in advance, or how they will affect us, but we know many of the surprises to come. Even the most devastating surprises—like terrorist attacks and economic collapses—are often predictable because they have their roots in the driving forces at work today.

In the coming decades we face many more inevitable surprises: major discontinuities in the economic, political, and social spheres of our world, each one changing the “rules of the game” as it is played today. If anything, there will be more, not fewer, surprises in the future, and they will all be interconnected. Together, they will lead us into a world, ten to fifteen years hence, that is fundamentally different from the one we know today. Understanding these inevitable surprises in our future is critical for the decisions we have to make today—whether we are captains of industry, leaders of nations, or simply individuals who care about the future of our families and communities. We may not be able to prevent catastrophe (although sometimes we can), but we can certainly increase our ability to respond, and our ability to see opportunities that we would otherwise miss.

Next, Schwartz echoes Eamonn Kelly, the current CEO of GBN, the firm Schwartz co-founded. This is not the time to stick one's head in the sand. Denial and defensiveness skirt the problem and leave us totally unprepared to deal with the inevitable surprises. As Darwin wrote, it's not the fittest of the species that survives, it's the most adaptable.

Personally, that's why I'm putting energy into nurturing the Edinburgh Scenarios. They may be a little out of alignment, but it's better to ask the question than to act like a know-it-all.

When an inevitable surprise confronts us, there are two different types of natural reactions. Both of them can lead to poor decision making. The first is denial—the refusal to believe that the inevitabilities exist. The second natural reaction to any turbulent crisis is defensiveness. This is a kind of opposite to denial. People take the inevitable surprise so seriously that they freeze; in their minds there is no viable way to act except to find a safe place, hunker down, and wait for it to all blow over.

Unfortunately, this strategy also tends to produce poor results. You are making one of the riskiest moves of all: to do nothing in the face of uncertainty.

How about heading over to the scenario planning exercise on the Learning Circuits blog?

Posted by Jay Cross at January 5, 2004 12:26 PM | TrackBack

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