Humans are unique in their ability to imagine the future. We project our minds forward to vividly experience future events. But the brain is only a simulator, and the future is an illusion. We can prepare mentally for what could happen, but there are no guarantees.
Humans have tried to foretell the future for eons, seeking guidance from oracles, psychics, and fortune tellers; using tools like the I Ching, astrology, and tarot cards. Through millennia, in all cultures, we have sought clairvoyance. Now that science is ascendant, we put our faith in prediction markets, trend analysis, and strategic foresight.
It gives false comfort when we accept these predictions with blind faith. Complexity scientist Stuart Kauffman calls the future ‘unprestatable,’ meaning that even science cannot say in advance how things will unfold. The future emerges on its own, through the constant jostling of competing forces, largely unknown. We are continually blindsided by wildcards and black swans.
Herman Kahn, founder of the Hudson Institute think tank and the originator of scenario planning, is quoted in Edward de Bono’s book Tactics: The Art and Science of Success (1984). “We often have strategies around this place, but we tend not to use them. There are simply too many contingencies. So it is very hard to plan because you don’t know which contingency is going to occur, which things will tend to become dominant and override the long-term strategy.”
Unless we lie back and accept the hand of fate, we have to commit to doing something. Yet we could commit wholeheartedly to preparing for the wrong future. Michael Raynor called this the strategy paradox in his book of the same name, advocating that while organizations have to make bets they also need to hedge against alternative futures.
In a world of growing complexity and volatility, we need to come to terms with a reality we can no longer ignore. We must accept that the future we expect will never happen. Certainty in long-term planning is an illusion.
When we believe we can know the future, we’re misled into a mechanical way of working – plan, do, repeat. It shouldn’t be a surprise that things never work out the way we expect, and that people lose confidence in the planning process.
When we understand that the future is unknown and continuously unfolding, we are more inclined to work organically – plan, mobilize, accelerate, adapt, repeat. When an organization works this way it becomes dynamically alive. Strategy is then a ‘way of being’ that is open to possibilities as they emerge:
- Planning is the commitment to act with absolute certainty that the plan will change
- Mobilizing is marshaling high-functioning teams to respond to emerging needs
- Accelerating is trying things, seeing what works, and learning by doing
- Adapting is making sense of what is happening in the surrounding system, and what is being learned, so the organization can continually evolve
We can’t predict the future but we can live in the ‘future’ as it happens!
This article is an excerpt from a book in progress on collaboration and transformative change. It was first posted on September 19, 2017, on LinkedIn.