Beware unexpected goodness

03 Jan 2012|Lee Shupp

I’ve been reading all of the predictions and prognostications for 2012 with interest. Futures folks like me love this time of year, scanning the range of predictions from the inane to the insightful. For futurists, most of the “10 things to watch for” lists have already happened. But this year is especially interesting as there is so much uncertainty in the world economy, leading to a very broad range of potential scenarios that might play out.

We live in a time of huge change, and it’s not yet clear what we are headed towards yet- but it’s something very different from life before the Great Recession. Many of the old ways of doing things no longer work, and we’re going to have to invent new institutions and systems to cope with a much more complex and interconnected world.

Most of the predictions for 2012 have been pretty bleak. The New York Times business section showed a wailing 2012 baby with smartphone in hand, screen showing a stock chart with declining returns. Most of the US business press is predicting a tough year that we will muddle through. The Economist World in 2012 special issues lists a litany of potential problems and rightly points out that with election years coming to many of the G8 countries (and a political transition in China), decisive action is not likely globally, as political parties and candidates avoid tough decisions in their bids to get elected.

There are good reasons to be concerned. The EU appears headed into recession, if it’s not there already, and there are significant challenges to supporting the Euro as a common currency, with the distinct possibility of sovereign defaults acting as the catalyst to unravel part or all of the Euro zone. The economy of China is slowing down and showing signs of trouble, as housing and stock bubbles deflate. And the US, while technically out of recession, is muddling along with very low growth around an anemic 2%, appearing vulnerable to any outside pressure brought on by economic difficulties elsewhere.

Futurists and strategists have been good at identifying potential wild cards, and looking at the driving forces that could move wild cards into plausible scenarios. (A “wild card” is an event with low probability, but high impact if it happens, a “black swan” as described by Nassim Nicholas Taleb.) The breakup of the Euro Zone looked like a wild card until last year, when it became a distinct possibility that garnered lots of attention. Now politicians and economists are taking this possibility very seriously, and making significant efforts to prevent it.

Interestingly, most of the wild cards that futurists and strategists study have significant negative impacts. That’s because foresight offers value in helping to reduce risk, by understanding how multiple scenarios can play out, disrupting our underlying assumptions about how we think the future will unfold. Alternative scenarios are getting lots of attention now, because the level of uncertainty is so high, and smart strategists are quick to admit that they don’t know what’s going to happen next. And we have to admit: futurists like to look at the big scary stuff, because it’ s fun, and because it gets attention. Talking about a global pandemic of a deadly unidentified disease gets a very different reaction from talking about a sudden outbreak of altruism.

But with such strong consensus around such a bleak outlook for 2012, let’s consider the opposite view for a moment as we start the New Year. We all see the dangers, and we are being appropriately cautious. But ask yourself: What positive wild cards could unfold that are unexpectedly great? What could go really right in your business this year? What could go really right in your personal life? If you encounter unexpected goodness, are you ready to leverage it for all that it’s worth? With everyone in a defensive mindset, are you ready to shift to offense if the right opportunity presents itself?

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