This is the beginning of what will likely turn into a series of articles about thinking about our personal and collective futures. As I write this in April 2020, the world is in the middle of the Covid-19 epidemic. There aren’t any clear pathways forward or answers on how this will end. It doesn’t mean that we can’t forge some for ourselves.
So where to from here? To a certain extent, that depends very much on where “here” actually is. People’s experiences of the current pandemic vary considerably, based on geography, politics, role and organization. Some are quite literally still going to work every day (sometimes under quite dire circumstances, particularly those in health care).
Many are still working, but doing so remotely; for some, that is an amazing source of productivity and focus, while for many others it is a vehicle for frustration and distraction. Others have lost their jobs. And still others have had their livelihoods put on hold, in that while they formally have a job they’re not in a position where they are allowed to actually work.
Speaking personally, I largely fall into the last category. Working as a consultant means that I spend my life in front of clients, facilitating, teaching, advising, coaching and mentoring. Currently, my clients have no desire to see my face in front of them (for reasons of social distancing, not because they don’t actually like me). And the majority of them are mired in the depths of figuring out how to respond to a crisis that very few saw coming. This has reinforced how much the emphasis of my work is on the proactive planning to anticipate, rather than the reactive response to crisis. When the world is ready to think about “what do we need to do to prepare us to respond more effectively in the future?” I imagine that I’ll be very, very busy. Today, not so much.
What that does allow me is the time to contemplate, which is a luxury I’ve had less than I would like of late. It’s a refreshing change. Over the last few days, a lot of that thought has focussed on how the current pandemic ends (which, to some extent, it most assuredly will) and what will have changed as a result (to which I can safely predict that some things will be massively different, while others will remain precisely the same). The particular challenge is in understanding how the particulars will play out.
As a rule, human beings don’t do terribly well at trying to predict the future. We want to be able to, of course, but we quickly run into roadblocks. We can’t project when the pandemic will be over, let alone what the world will look like once it is. We don’t know how many will get sick, how many will die, or how close to home both of those numbers will hit. Here’s the challenge, though. All those questions imply that there is one, precise, actual answer.
There will be an actual answer, of course. But that answer is somewhere out in the future. We will not know with absolute certainty until the future has passed through the present and is lodged very firmly in the past. Even when we land on one accepted answer, it is important to recognize the difference between what is accepted, and what is accurate.
History is a social construct as much as anything else is. The numbers of the pandemic are being manipulated and managed by numerous players, and for a variety of reasons. Epidemiologists are trying to arrive at reasonable numbers by extrapolating from a variety of different sources, none of whom track what is going on in quite the same way. Politicians are trying to downplay numbers to manage and manipulate public perceptions. Different testing regimes are in place. There are many people who simply aren’t being tested, and are presumed to be infected. In other jurisdictions, there are people that are not tested and are presumed not to be infected. Deaths are variously attributed to other contributing factors.
The uncertainty of where we are now parallels what for many was the overall unpredictability of the outbreak in the first place. Not all organizations have failed in their ability to anticipate the potential—and consequences—of a pandemic like this. A fire chief (also responsible for EMS) in New Jersey saw the possibility, extrapolated the implications and started to stockpile protective equipment back in January for his people. H-E-B, a grocery chain in Texas has had a pandemic and influenza response plan since 2005, and have tested and recalibrated it in several outbreaks since then. They started preparing for the current outbreak when it was just hitting the radar in China in January. That is an impressive level of planning and preparedness.
The difference here is not simply that some have a greater capability for planning than others. The more important part is that they ask different questions. They bring a different perspective. They are open to alternative viewpoints. They have the ability to take individual data points, combine them and extrapolate patterns. They are able to make sense of complex data, and project out implications. They see and understand consequences, and have the ability to objectively assess and evaluate them.
Successful planning isn’t about perfectly predicting the future, and knowing with certainty what will happen. It’s about assessing what’s possible in the future, and making informed choices about what might transpire, based on insight, extrapolation and approximation.
I’ll be very honest here: This is going to make some people very uncomfortable. There is a subset of the population who like certainty, who need precision, and who prefer answers to be clear, black-and-white, right-or-wrong forced choices. While it’s more possible to gain certainty and precision when dealing with what is past (although in my view there are no hard answers, and even the past is subject to interpretation and perspective) the future is far less clear. The path forward will always to a certain extent be murky and vague. It doesn’t mean it isn’t worth trying to figure out.
From my perspective, the ability to project and plan for the future is absolutely learnable. As with many things in life, there are going to be people who are more comfortable with the process and approach and those who are less so. Much of this comfort is a product of a tolerance for ambiguity, an ability to hold several possible narratives open at once and a capacity for fuzzy and less certain outcomes.
Before we get to the content of how this might play out (the subject of my next few posts) I want to talk about the mindset, perspective and approach of figuring out the future in general. How do we need to approach it? What do we need to think about? And how do we work through extrapolating from where we are now to what might become later? Because these skills—and this mindset—aren’t unique to what we are all dealing with today. They are skills and practices that are relevant and applicable in thinking about the future, regardless of the current circumstances.
The first mindset required to plan for the future is curiosity. You need a learning mindset, one where you want to find out more. In particular, you need to be relentlessly open and curious. Be inquisitive and interested in different perspectives. Don’t assume that you know everything. Be willing to listen to and learn from others.
This also means letting go of, to a large extent, an expert mindset. This might seem contrary or illogical; better planning is often thought to go hand-in-hand with more expertise. The more you know, the more likely it is that you believe that you will already have the right answers. Or better ones. That is the heart of the problem. A lovely quote I heard earlier this week was, “No new ideas are going to emerge for you in expert mode.” It’s a delightful point that underlies an essential truth: the mode of telling as expert shuts down the mode of listening as learner.
Early awareness and openness to experience means we can learn from the experience of others. This is only possible when you are open to understanding the experience of others. Seek relevant additional information. Ask questions. Expand understanding. This is what the fire chief and the disaster response specialist fundamentally drew on in the articles I discussed above; not only did they recognize a problem occurring elsewhere in the world, they took the time to learn and understand its implications, from those on the ground managing it, and extrapolated those insights to their own preparedness.
Dismissing or downplaying the experiences or insights of others—believing that something can’t happen here—is a recipe for disaster. That mindset is the fundamental reason why responses have been as inadequate as they have been in countries that should have been massively more prepared.
Thinking about the future means that you need to let go of the need for a single, clear answer. You can’t know with certainty what will happen and how events will transpire. You can know with probability. But you need to recognize that probability is a five syllable word for “ballpark guess.” Understanding whether something is more or less likely is what you are aiming for here, not an assessment of 73.2% certainty.
Recognize that there are multiple possible futures. Planning for the future is not about picking the path that we are going to follow. Central to effective planning is an understanding that multiple paths are open, multiple potential futures exist, and each one is associated with specific uncertainties and key probabilities. This is a theme that we are going to come back to many times in the next few posts. Thinking about possible paths—and identifying the critical uncertainties that determine them—is central to how you can plan more effectively for what happens next.
Finally, know that you can’t pick the future you want. The fact that there are multiple possible futures is an essential realization to make. Realizing that we don’t get to choose our future is even more important. In viewing potential futures, there will always be some you find more appealing, and others that you find concerning or downright unappetizing. Just because you don’t like them, however, doesn’t mean that they won’t happen. You may be able to nudge towards a more desirable one (or away from a less desirable one) but the most important thing to remember is that the potential futures are simply the cards that are on the table. We still have to see how these cards will play out.
Thinking about the future is an inexact and imperfect process. We are working with what might happen and probabilities that may occur. Some events aren’t a question of if, they are a question of when; the variables are how long and how severe the impacts are. Other events may or may not occur, and the degree to which they transpire is a consequence of probability, choice and luck.
You’ll get some things right, some things sort-of right, some things wrong, and some things will completely blindside you. H-E-B, for all it’s preparedness, did not see a run on toilet paper happening. And they still don’t get why it did. But that happened. There was a great deal that they did get right, though. And that was a by-product of there willingness to pay attention, to learn, to contemplate and ultimately to act. Our ability to build planning capacity requires the same of us.