Eight Tips for Dealing with the Unpredictable

Ball rolling down a mountainPosted by Ray Poynter, 6 June 2020

We are living in what Raphael Ramirez from the Oxford Scenario Programme calls TUNA – Turbulent, Uncertain, Novel and Ambiguous times. Thinking about the future is more important than ever, but predictions are even less useful than normal. The key to navigating the next few months (perhaps years, that is part of the uncertainty) is to adopt a Scenario Thinking approach.

Here are eight thoughts for anybody trying to steer an organisation through the turbulence, and for anybody helping them do it.

  1. The future starts now
  2. Avoid confirmation bias
  3. Ensure diversity of views
  4. Control the horse you can control
  5. Plausible futures, not probable predictions
  6. Focus on the context, not the organisation
  7. Scout for weak and emerging messages
  8. Learn about Scenario Planning and Thinking

1 The future starts now

People often seem to think the future is a destination and that we can choose how we travel to it, as if it were a beach in Thailand, a mountain in Tibet, or an art gallery in Venice. However, the future comes to us, and it starts now. At the best of times we can’t pause the future, and these are not the best of times. Therefore, try to avoid statements such as ‘when things get back to normal’ or ‘when this is over’. You need to deal with the now and be prepared for a range of possible futures which are moving towards us.

2 Avoid confirmation bias

Whenever there is a big shock (in the sense of Alvin Toffler’s ‘Future Shock’ (for example the pandemic and now the rising protest about Black Lives Matter) there is a tendency for people to predict the imminent arrival of things they have been predicting for ages. The people campaigning for more climate action think it is now more likely, similarly the people calling for more private sector involvement (and less Government) think it is more likely. When you hear people talking about what they think is going to happen, ask yourself, is this almost exactly what they were saying before the shock? If it is, discount it heavily. Similarly, assume that your thoughts about the future are also a product of confirmation bias.

3 Ensure diversity of views

This links to the point about confirmation bias. If you surround yourself with people like you (age, gender, race, culture, education, etc) you are more likely to indulge in group think and more likely to exclude a plausible future from your scenarios. Peter Schwartz (author of The Art of the Long View and head of Strategic Planning for Salesforce) said in 2019 “Every time I have been wrong, with no exceptions, it’s because we had inadequate diversity in the room.” Seek out other points of view, when people make predictions that are the opposite of your views, think about the assumptions and experiences that might be shaping that perception.

4 Control the horse you can control

We can control some things and others we can’t control, so we need to focus on those things we can control. This is expressed really well by Elizabeth Gilbert in her book, “Eat, Pray Love”, “We gallop through our lives like circus performers balancing on two speeding side-by-side horses—one foot is on the horse called ‘fate,’ the other on the horse called ‘free will.’ And the question you have to ask every day is—which horse is which? Which horse do I need to stop worrying about because it’s not under my control, and which do I need to steer with concentrated effort?” For example, if you can help control the rate of infection in your society, you should, but if you can’t you need to focus on how you respond different rates of infection. If you can influence the number of people who want to buy your product you should, but if you can’t then you need to focus on coping with the current level of demand.

5 Plausible futures, not probable predictions

As Philip Tetlock points out in “Superforecasting: The Art and Science of Prediction”, most predictions are wrong, and most experts are no more accurate than a chimp throwing a dart at a list of possible outcomes. The solution is to create mutually exclusive, plausible futures, i.e. scenarios. Don’t focus on probabilities, focus on plausibility, and focus on being able to recognise which specific scenario appears to be arriving – not by predicting it, but by recognising it.

6 Focus on the context, not the organisation

When you are thinking about the future and scenarios, the focus is the context you will be operating in. If you are, for example, a manufacturer of frozen meals, the context is how and where will people be eating, what role does preparing food have in that future, and how will people want to store food? The context is not a set of possible attitudes to your products. You add the product-specific thinking to the mix once you have the plausible futures.

7 Scout for weak and emerging signals

Since we can’t predict the future, we need to be really good at recognising what is happening. This tends to mean spotting weak and emerging signals. One of the key tools here is research that focuses on what people are doing, what are their motivations, and what are their challenges. To spot changes in signals you need to have a longitudinal framework, which can be facilitated by approaches such as insight communities, social media listening, and cultural studies (including semiotics and ethnography) – a combination that is sometimes termed Human Experience (HX). Ad hoc research and fixed programmes (such as traditional trackers) are unlikely to reveal emerging signals. Ad hoc does not provide the comparisons over time, and traditional trackers focus on yesterday’s themes which are not necessarily related to the emerging signals.

8 Learn about Scenario Planning and Thinking

If you are helping steer an organisation through these ambiguous and uncertain times, then you need to be at least familiar with the key aspects of Scenario Planning and Thinking.

Key Books
Two books that I have found really useful are:

  • Peter Schwartz, ‘The Art of the Long View’
  • Rafael Ramirez & Angela Wilkinson, Strategic Reframing – The Oxford Scenario Planning Approach

Online Learning
I am running training courses for both the Australian Research Society and the UK’s MRS. Both courses are online and they are available to members and non-members.

  • Scenario Thinking – A Tool for Uncertain Times. The Masterclass will be held over three two-hour lessons (29 June, 6 July, and 13 July). The price for members (and members of any association that is part of APRC – the Asia Pacific Research Committee) is $413, for non-members $880. To find out more or book places, click here.
  • Understanding and Using Scenario Thinking. The course is a half-day session 21 July. The price for members £165 and for non-members £240. To find out more or book places, click here.

Hat Tip to Tom Ewing for highlighting the confirmaiton bias issue

One thought on “Eight Tips for Dealing with the Unpredictable

  1. Ray – I’m not sure #2 is confirmation bias as well as prediction acceleration. You should be comforted that I think we’ll turn to more experimentation and less modeling precisely because I have been advocating for that for some time – my message is consistent. If I now tell you that this will happen quickly because models will fail and YOU MUST do experiments, then you should be skeptical not of the idea but of the acceleration. I’d also like to disagree a bit with #7 – that traditional tracking can’t reveal weak signals. Of course it can. Whether we recognize it or not is another matter. People’s fear of shortages can easily be seen in household panel purchasing data, with buying rates radically increased from the norm for many products. Of course, if you’re just asking brand attribute ratings in your tracker, I’m with you.

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