Planning for the Unknowable

“The future is already here. It just isn’t equally distributed.”
        William Gibson, quoted in The Economist, December 4, 2003

The essence of traditional planning is to prepare for the future you expect. When you don’t know what to expect, you might consider scenario planning for the futures that are most likely. Another option is to plan across institutional and cultural boundaries to get insights your colleagues might see better than you do. You might use technology to mine and make meaning of data from the past to imagine patterns of the future. You might consult with experts who know—or claim to know—more than you do about tomorrow’s world. All these approaches chip away at the unknown. They reach across a time horizon and bring the unknown into your field of vision. They help you shift what was unknown into the field of the knowable and the known. Sometimes these tactics work, and sometimes they do not.

They fall short in times of radical, dynamical change, when the future is essentially unknowable. Data, scenarios, experts, and collaborations uncover what is knowable. They can also build your confidence and sense of safety, even when the future is unknowable. The problem is that they also narrow assumptions and expectations, so radical surprises may be ignored, discounted, or hidden from view. When you work and live in dynamical change, planning needs to prepare you for the unknowable. This is the playground of human systems dynamics, and I would like to invite you into an Adaptive Action cycle to help you prepare for a future you neither predict nor control:

  • What is dynamical change and why is it unknowable?
  • So what options for action will prepare you for the unknowable nature of dynamical change?
  • Now what is HSD Institute doing to help plan for dynamical change?

What is dynamical change and why is it unknowable?

Dynamical change has many names: Self-organized criticality; avalanche; psychotic break; transformation; tipping point; chaotic transition; bifurcation cascade; innovation; phase shift. Depending on your questions, models, and methods, you will label this phenomenon differently. Whatever it is called, it is fundamentally unpredictable. You may have an idea of what might happen, but you cannot know when. You may have seen similar situations in the past, but none of them is exactly like what you face today. Dynamical change is unknowable because it:

  • Is working at multiple levels at the same time—many of which are hidden from your view. Changes at different levels depend on each other, but it is impossible to track causal connections among them. Change ripples across the layers of the system in ways that are impossible to predict.
  • Has no natural boundary in time or space. A change at this place and this moment may be influenced by something that happened long ago or in a distant part of the system.  No barriers can isolate a particular change from all the other changes in the system.
  • Influenced by an unknowable, and shifting, number of factors. At one moment or from one perspective, one factor may be most important. At another time, from a different point of view, some other factor becomes important.
  • Depends on massively entangled relationships. Not only are there an unknowable number of factors and players, but the relationship between any two factors or any of the players is unknowable.

Consider learning as an example of dynamical change. Insights emerge from multiple, interdependent levels when learning individuals participate in learning communities and generate a learning organization. Influence goes the other way, as well, when a learning organization sparks learning communities and encourages individuals to develop knowledge and skills. Any moment of learning depends on all the experiences that went before. An insight can be sparked in a moment because of an experience in a distant time or place. While intellectual stimulation certainly affects learning, a wide range of unpredictable emotional, physical, social, psychological patterns do, as well. Finally, connections and relationships among people, ideas, memories, and events inside and outside the organization will set the conditions for learning to happen—or not.

Imagine the dynamical changes that you encounter every day. While traditional planning can help you feel prepared for what might come, it can also blind you to the opportunities for radical transformation that emerge from your dynamical environment.

So what options for action will prepare you for the unknowable nature of dynamical change?

When you work in dynamical change, you don’t have to give up traditional planning, you just have to give up your blind faith in it. When you see the power of dynamical change, you realize that no matter how much you plan, the future will still hold surprises. You can also discover how to prepare for surprises:

  • Reconsider basic assumptions about your planning. How might a new understanding of vision, stability, uncertainty, adaptability, collaboration, and performance help you and your team prepare for the unknowable?
  • Stay connected. Distant neighbors with various perspectives can help you see and respond to weak signals before they become massive disruptions.
  • Stand in inquiry. Know what you expect, but hold it lightly. Be ready to think about aberrations as opportunities, rather than distractions from your well-made plans.
  • Remember the past and stay conscious of the present. Though dynamical change is unknowable, it does generate patterns across time. While you will never be able to predict when or where the next change will happen, you can begin to build a sense for what might be possible and the resilience to respond when it does.
  • Practice Adaptive Action to see, understand, and influence change as it emerges.

Now what is HSD Institute doing to help people plan for dynamical change?

While you cannot predict or control the unknowable, you can see patterns in dynamical change (WHAT?), understand those patterns in useful ways (SO WHAT?), and take action to influence what you cannot control (NOW WHAT?). The HSD team works with private clients and public events to support people as they plan for dynamical change. We call these experiences Adaptive Action Laboratories, because you do real work and make real progress on your most wicked challenges. Currently we are engaging in Adaptive Action Laboratories:

  • Working with an environmental research network to help them create strategy for their unknowable future.  For more information or to talk about your own complex challenges, send an email to info@hsdinstitute.org. We will get back to you quickly.
  • Hosting an in-person Adaptive Action Lab on Planning in Complexity, March 19 and 20 in Pretoria, South Africa. This will be followed by another two-day lab on Complex Change, March 22 and 23 at the same venue. For more information, visit our website.
  • Sharing our perspectives on planning in an online Adaptive Action Lab called Planning and Adaptive Action: Build Adaptive Capacity.  For more information follow this link.

We look forward to connecting with you soon to explore the challenges you face as you prepare for a future you cannot predict or control.

Stay in touch, Glenda

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