Magazine article The Futurist

Anticipating Wild Cards in World Affairs: How to Avoid Being Blindsided by the Future

Magazine article The Futurist

Anticipating Wild Cards in World Affairs: How to Avoid Being Blindsided by the Future

Article excerpt

"We can predict with certainty that we will be surprised" is the unsurprising conclusion of political economist Francis Fukuyama. AIDS, 9/11, Katrina--the catalog of catastrophes supporting Fukuyama's assertion seems to grow daily, from the rapid growth of India and China's economies to the consumer product recalls that undermine confidence in that rapid growth. Policy makers working out trade agreements can be blindsided by citizens who are suddenly afraid to buy the trade partner's products.

"Anticipating and dealing with what were thought to have been very low-probability events have clearly become central challenges for policymakers in public and private sectors alike all over the world," notes Fukuyama in the introduction to Blindside, a collection of essays by futurists and policy analysts from a variety of disciplines.

"Failure of imagination" gets a lot of blame for the events that blindside us, but as futurists Peter Schwartz and Doug Randall note, the blame game is past-focused and does little to advance foresight capabilities or improve policy strategies.

The most common tool for handling surprises is the scenario--imagining alternative potential events, analyzing their impacts, and creating strategies to avoid the negative ones and promote the positive ones. As Schwartz and Randall point out, the difficult part of scenarios--particularly low-probability surprises--is making them believable enough for decision makers to take seriously so they will take action.

Another challenge is to focus on the wild-card events that truly are "strategic surprises"--that is, events that directly impact the organization or entity for which decisions are being made. Schwartz and Randall note that a significant natural disaster such as the December 2004 tsunami in southeast Asia was momentous but not a "game-changing event" for most businesses in the United States, for instance.

"The sudden collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991 is one of the greatest strategic surprises of the twentieth century," they write. "It fits the definition of a strategic surprise because it made a huge difference to global politics and economics, it challenged the conventional wisdom that the Soviet Union would exist forever, and it was difficult to imagine how anyone could prepare a response to such a radically new world. Although it was a 'surprise' that had been foreseen well in advance, most people did not act."

Sensing the forces of change underlying potential strategic surprises is something everyone can do--if they make it a priority and commit themselves to a systematic approach, advise Schwartz and Randall. They recommend being imaginative and systematic: "It is important to look for events that seem to have a low probability of happening but that would have a high impact if they were to occur." The authors encourage leaders to go on "learning journeys" that explore areas outside their specialties and to role-play in order to understand other points of view.

Using multiple filters helps compile seemingly unrelated information. Instead of departmentalizing the types of intelligence that your organization reviews--such as market research or financial research--Schwartz and Randall recommend creating a portfolio of databases that can "capture and relate varied information like data on demographics, economics, and energy use."

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Information can also be processed in new ways. Trend analysis--the study of social, technological, economic, and political forces--allows the strategic decision maker to make connections among data from multiple sources. …

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