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How Do You Plan for the Unplannable?

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There are few of us who, relaxing over the 2019 summer break, would have said they had any premonition for the life-changing events that have since occurred. Except for perhaps rapper and actor Ice T:

In a nutshell

  1. How can organisations plan for low probability, high cost events and navigate asymmetric threats like Covid-19? 
  2. Part of the answer lies in understanding how humans feel about uncertainty today - and how we're reluctant to live with it. 
  3. And we can sharpen our thinking by expecting change and disturbance in an unspecified way as probability (not possibility).


Had you told me I’d spend months home-schooling my children (bad), while conducting work meetings in my pyjamas (good) because a global pandemic had shut down 90% of the local economy, I don’t think I could have honestly said that I saw this coming. Or that I had any real plan in place for something of this eventuality. Of course we had, as part of normal strategic planning, considered different growth and recession scenarios, both for ourselves and our clients, but nothing so far out of the box.  

We were focused on planning for likely future occurrences, based on analysis of data. Not unlikely ones. If not totally blind, we were certainly blinkered to the possibility of a global pandemic grinding the economy to a halt. 

Low probability, high cost: asymmetric threats

A few years ago, in a piece on strategic planning, former World Bank president and US Defence Secretary, Paul Wolfowitz, described to these types of events as “asymmetric threats”. Ones where the probability of the event occurring in the way that it does is seemingly low versus the high cost of preparation and the immense costs and destruction if it does occur.  

What approach can we take that might allow us, if not to completely foresee an asymmetric threat, then to at least feel we have a framework for navigating a crisis?  

The surprise hurricane that comes when the season is supposedly finished and response teams are exhausted and unready. The terror event where perpetrators use a highjacked plane as a weapon for the first time. The cyber-attack that targets millions of home WI-FI routers instead of major organisational gateways. 

The problem with these low-probability/high cost events, is that they are almost inevitability going to fall out of the scope of even the most assiduous future scenario planning conducted by an organisation – especially one that sits outside the scale of a major global corporate or government entity. It’s simply too unlikely to occur in the exact way that it does to really spend time contemplating it, despite the devastating impact its occurrence would actually have. 

These are, for the large part, almost unplannable events, when we consider the number of future scenarios that would need to be considered for them to be encompassed within our planning. 

So what the hell are we meant to do as business people in response to this? How do we approach the idea of planning for the unplannable? What approach can we take that might allow us, if not to completely foresee an asymmetric threat, then to at least feel we have a framework for navigating a crisis such as Covid-19 when it unfolds? 

Part of the answer to this question lies in understanding a bit more clearly ourselves as humans right now, and how we approach the idea of 'the unknown'. And why we are reluctant to live with it enough to really prepare well for asymmetric events. 

As humans, we have never been comfortable with the idea of unknowns and uncertainty. 

It’s a hardwired part of our survival system. When we know an outcome will be positive, we feel comfortable and relaxed. Likewise, experiment has shown, we feel pretty comfortable even when we know an outcome will be negative. We can prepare for that eventuality. Our dopamine reward centre fires up, and we feel the relief/satisfaction of a problem solved. But when the outcome of an event is completely unknown, when things are completely uncertain, we feel at our most stressed. We don’t have a clear path on how to act and our brain steps our nervous system into overdrive to get us to do something about it.  

When you think about this idea in relation to strategic planning, it’s easy to see why we favour approaches to understanding the future that focus on unpacking a small amount of very likely scenarios over trying to prepare generally for ‘anything goes’ situations. This requires acknowledging that we don’t know what will happen and accepting that a certain level of uncertainty exists. 

I would also argue that our tolerance for uncertainly is actually decreasing over time. As technology, scientific knowledge and free sharing of information advances, one thing we notice clearly from our work, is that people generally expect life to be understood and measurable in every possible way. That people innately expectthe patterns of life have been decoded, and that we understand cause and effect. That uncertainty and unknowns are less acceptable to us.  

Even as we talk about ‘disruption’ and the need for ‘agility’ as organisations, we are really doing so because we believe we understand what is going to happen, not that we should prepare better for the unknown. 

Even as we talk about ‘disruption’ and the need for ‘agility’ as organisations, we are really doing so because we believe we understand what is going to happen, not that we should prepare better for the unknown. 

Developing a state of 'meta-readiness'

Wolfowitz argues that organisations need to flip this thinking completely. That, rather than dedicating resources to figuring out how to mitigate specific threats in specific scenarios, that we should instead shift our mindset to developing a more general state of ‘meta-readiness’ – the idea that we build capability to respond rather than trying to understand what will happen. Under this mindset, we accept that things will happen – disasters that we cannot identify clearly now. And with this idea, we look for our vulnerabilities, we test our ability to have advance indicators of change generally and we plan to be ready. 

In many ways, it’s a mindset a bit more like our distant relatives, living in past eras had. Consider Ancient Greece or Rome. Civilisations with a strong grounding in science and reason, but ones where the language of ‘fate’ and ‘luck’ and ‘fortune’ played a large role. Here there was an acknowledgement that the future is unwritten, in flux. And that despite everything we feel we know,  a smiting from the gods could lie just round the corner. 

There is something in this argument for how we plan for the unplannable. And that is, we don’t. Not directly. Instead, we should expect change and disturbance in an unspecified way as probability (not possibility) and use that to sharpen our thinking. We heighten our early warning systems by making sure we understand our markets; our context. And we look inside at our vulnerabilities and work over time to build these up.  

We take out the uncertainty from the unknown in our meta-readiness.  

Andrew Lewis
Managing Director at TRA

New problems need new solutions.

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