What Might Happen
Various pundits in sundry domains attempt to predict what will happen. In domains such as climate change, urban systems, and national politics, which are laced with human and social phenomena, such predictions are folly. There are far too many possible ways in which individuals and social groups can behave in response to evolving events, whether they be physical (e.g., environmental threats), economic (e.g., new financial bubbles), or social (e.g., changed attitudes towards social issues).
Pundits may try to hedge their predictions by making them contingent on particular assumptions such as “if humans continue to consume resources as they currently do,” or “if economic growth follows the historical average.” These types of assumptions certainly narrow the range of uncertainties if the assumptions are warranted. However, we are left to wonder about the probabilities of the assumptions being true over the time periods of interest.
I have lately become attracted to a new line of reasoning that focuses on what might happen. This perspective allows us to consider a variety of things that might happen and the conditions under which they might happen. Some of the things that might happen will be appealing; others will not be at all appealing. Such differentiation by level of appeal can prompt an exploration of the differing conditions leading to likely outcomes. This enables a discussion of how we can foster the conditions that seemingly lead to more appealing outcomes.
This approach suggests that problem solving and planning should not focus on predicting a particular future. It should instead be a discussion and exploration of alternative futures, how these futures might emerge, and how today’s choices might influence the possibilities of these futures. If we find that X almost always leads to appealing futures, and Y almost always results in unappealing futures, we should try to facilitate X and avoid Y.
This approach has enormous implications for planning and control of enterprises, organizations, and even careers. Instead of having specific targets, which drive actions and determine controls, attention should be focused on a portfolio of possible scenarios, leading indicators of emergence, and lagging indicators of performance. Instead of focusing on how well targets are being hit, e.g., 10% revenue increase and 20% profit increase, the key questions should be, “What is happening? What might happen next?”
Consequently, strategies and plans are needed for each current and nascent scenario. This requires careful consideration of situation assessment, strategic planning, and the efficiency and effectiveness of execution. Traditional metrics, such as revenues and profits are the consequences of accurate assessments, effective strategies and plans, and efficient execution of plans. However, one should first make sure that the right things are being pursued.
How can we project what might happen? There are data sets and analytic tools that can help, but they seldom enable clairvoyance. I have found that the keys are understanding, sustaining, and enhancing the organization’s relationship network with key current stakeholders and prospective stakeholders, including competitors, customers, suppliers, and employees, as well as thought leaders in the realms of economics, politics, and technology. Their concerns and insights, as well as their reactions to your ideas, can be invaluable.
Encounters with stakeholders can happen in a variety of ways – meetings, telephone calls, emails, etc. The key is to capture knowledge from each encounter, planned or otherwise. Many questions are of interest. What would customers like next? What are competitors thinking of doing next? What technologies are maturing to the point of realistic deployment? What effects are healthcare reforms likely to have? What aspects of climate change are undoubtedly real and likely to have impacts sooner rather than later?
Answers to these questions should be captured, compared, and contrasted. Opportunities and challenges should be gleaned from this information and lead to further questions for subsequent encounters. Insights should be curated with links to information sources. This accumulating wealth of information will, over time, enable understanding what might happen.