Believe the unbelievable, achieve the unachievable.
A major part of our work is scenario planning; helping people and organisations to consider their strategic options in the light of a variety of possible, plausible, and potentially challenging futures. This exercise can feel quite daunting for a team of senior leaders who are more used to operating with data, evidence and performance indicators on a day to day basis. We ask them to voyage into the unknown, to create possible futures, and to use these futures as lenses through which to view their current strategy and formulate new strategic pathways.
Participants are encouraged (sometimes dragged kicking and screaming), to step away from the current data and evidence for a short time. The trick is to embrace imagination and let the creative juices flow. Assumptions are identified and suspended. Expectations of what the future may hold are placed out of reach, on a shelf, so that alternative worlds can be developed without restraint. In truth, some restraint is allowed – there’s likely to be limited value to be gained from considering the strategy to be adopted in the event of all out nuclear war or hostile alien invasion. These scenarios would most likely remove rather than reshape any viable market for a considerable time.
People tend to limit themselves way before we ever get in sight of scenarios that may interest Steven Spielberg. The creative juices typically start to run low as soon as we turn the corner into anything that feels remotely unlikely or, (dare I say it), potentially uncomfortable – a paradigm shift to the predominant economic model, an unexpected realignment of global geopolitics, a destabilisation of local political structures, a giant technological leap.
I’m sure we can all agree that all of these things have happened many times in human history, any one of them would present major issues for any organisation, and they are all very likely to happen again – we just don’t know when, where or how.
Many of us become seduced by the world we inhabit. We see the current status quo as ‘the way things work’, ‘the way things are meant to work’, and ‘the way things will probably work for the foreseeable future’. But we’re often very wrong!
In 2016 I asked a diverse group of leaders what they thought would happen in the Brexit referendum. The consensus in the room was that the vote would be close but that the United Kingdom would remain in the EU. We all know what happened there. Later in 2016 I asked another group of leaders to predict who would win the American Presidential election. I received a similar answer – that it would be close, but that Clinton would emerge victorious. Very few people in the room were even prepared to consider that Trump might win, but he did.
In 2017 I supported a number of organisations in their early planning for Brexit. In each case we generated a variety of scenarios of what ‘Brexit’ may mean in practice and how this may impact the strategic context. Only one of those leadership teams was initially willing to consider a ‘No Deal’ Brexit. It seemed implausible to virtually everyone that, just two years later, the United Kingdom would be on the brink of leaving the EU without a deal. And yet here we are.
At around the same time I suggested to a UK based leadership team that it may be worth considering a scenario in which Jeremy Corbyn had become Prime Minister and had moved the UK’s political and economic landscape significantly towards a more socialist foundation. I was initially met with laughter and a resounding chorus of ‘that will never happen’. It doesn’t seem such a stretch of the imagination now.
There’s a pattern to this thinking – we expect the current status quo to continue to be the future status quo. And yet, when we seek to actively improve our situation we know that we can alter the environment – why the disconnect? These deeply ingrained habits reassure us on a day to day basis; they allow us to live our lives without undue anxiety and to strive to achieve our goals. History tells us that we are wrong – many times have the hands of fate intervened, in a manner unforeseen, to deliver a totally unexpected outcome. But it’s not all bad news. Despite our inclination to view a potential situation as wholly favourable or unfavourable (the notorious halo and horns effect), the truth is that most situations present a mixture of threats, risks, and opportunities. Until we entertain alternative timelines, altered futures and the odd paradigm shift, it’s actually quite impossible to examine the potential within.
And so, I implore you to approach the world with an open-minded sense of wonder and curiosity. Hitchhike into the future, jump onto the Heart of Gold, crank up its Improbability Drive (which relies upon the power of improbability, impossibility and coincidence), and explore the future at an improbability of 2276,709 to 1 and rising. What are you assuming will never happen that just might … and (after the shock has subsided) what impact might it have if it did?