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Predicting the Unpredictable: Navigating in Uncertain Times

compass-10pwuk7Today’s Conditions: We navigate every day through a complex mixture of uncertainty, velocity, peril, information over-load, unpredictability….

Mariners have a term for ocean conditions when navigation seems impossible; when the waves and swells are coming from all directions. It’s called a “‘confused sea’, an extremely disturbed water surface, where waves reach the maximum disturbance level, but come from every direction without any single well-defined pattern. It is especially dangerous because in this condition, orthodox navigational measures contradict each other and don’t work.” (World Meteorological Organization definition). Sound at all familiar?

You don’t have to be a mariner to experience “confused seas.” Professionals we know in every arena including education, business, government, nonprofits, the military, diplomacy, economics, you name it, will all tell you: 1) they are currently in their own confused seas, and 2) the stuff they learned at the academy or an MPA, or MBA, even years of experience aren’t helping them keep their heads above water (no pun intended). To make things worse, old textbook thinking and those antique leadership models from the 1950’s are still around and in play. To paraphrase Marshall Goldsmith, “What got us here won’t get us out of this mess.”


Emergent-cies: In addition to confused seas, we also have a new phenomenon occurring–or at least we have finally recognized it. It’s what we call “Emergent-cies;” some concepts borrowed from complexity theory can help explain our circumstances as well. Kania & Kramer write:

“Taken from the field of complexity science, “emergence” is a term that is used to describe events that are unpredictable, which seem to result from the interactions between elements, and which no one organization or individual can control…. There is no ultimate “solution” beyond the process of continual adaptation within an ever-changing environment…. …as with a flock of birds, effective collective impact efforts experience a heightened level of vigilance that enables participants to collectively see and respond to opportunities that would otherwise have been missed.” (“Embracing Emergence, How Collective Impact Addresses Complexity,” January 21, 2013 Stanford Social Innovation Review, pp. 2-3 –A must read!!)

So, like a finely-tuned flock of birds, how can we be alert to the expected emergent-cies, get in front of them and be ready to “lead from the future.”


Scenario Planning: It’s time to dust off the old “scenario planning” model and make it more useful in this century. Old scenario planning is no longer a viable tool; you know, it’s the old “Best case, worst case, and likely case” concept.

Thomas Chermack has observed that: “The future often acts like a drunken monkey stung by a bee–it is confused and disturbing, and its behavior is completely unpredictable.” (Scenario Planning in Organizations, Barrett-Koehler, 2011). And yet what have I promised here??? Predicting the unpredictable!

It wouldn’t be the first time we had to take on the “impossible.” But moving away from the old, long, drawn-out, useless activity of strategic planning to 21st century scenario planning will help us get there (See O’ Donovan & Flower’s “The Strategic Plan Is Dead. Long Live Strategy” in the Stanford Social Innovation Review, January 10, 2013–another must read). Scenario planning, which now has considerable research support, helps us think systemically, strategically and creatively; builds in the potential for intelligent risk; and points to possible courses of action, no matter what happens.

This way we move from the “what are’s” to the “what if’s,” and best of all, it puts us in front of change rather than behind it. Rather than being reactive and victimized by the changes, we place ourselves in front of them allowing us to be more proactive; helping shape the change not just being shaped by it.


A place to start: The entire process of the new model of scenario planning is too long to write here. But here are a couple of the first steps that we teach to help you get started that are helpful as a place to begin:

1. Think of all of the “forces” that are in play that can have an effect on your organization’s ability to thrive. We use the acronym R.E.C.E.I.P.T.S. These might be challenges and/or opportunities–not always bad.

  • Regulatory
  • Economic
  • Competitive
  • Environmental
  • Intercultural
  • Political
  • Technological
  • Social

2. In each case, list all of the possibilities that could happen as you look into the next few years. Then go back and determine which of these possibilities are “T=Trends” and which are “U=Uncertainties.”

3. Next, here’s a simple but necessary step. If the possibilities you have listed are trends, then just prepare for them. Don’t wait for them to happen, just know what you will do when they occur. Do it now.

4. For those that are uncertainties, prepare for these differently. Imagine what the possibilities might be and determine how you might respond when they occur.

5. Then outline three possible responses: First, the timid and safe response, second the mid-range response and third, the “go bold or go home” response. This way, no matter what happens, you’ll be ready with a meaningful range of possibilities.

There’s an old saying that what we worry about isn’t what happens. So, inevitably whatever we predict, it may turn out to be something else, but at least we will have thought things through and won’t be blind-sided by what we should have seen coming.


Systems Thinking: Adding concepts from yet one more field of inquiry–systems theory–also helps inform our ability to effectively handle the uncertain future. One of the major principles of systems theory is that things, events, thoughts, ideas and people interact with each other. The short answer to what happens next in this scenario anticipating model is to “map” two or three scenarios together in a systemic way to see what proactive response might be necessary if two or more uncertainties occur simultaneously.


It’s just a place to start: Again, there is much more to this model that we describe briefly here, but even this much can be helpful. It addresses the complexities, the unpredictabilities, the volatility and the emergent and systemic nature of our worlds. It’s called leading from the future. Leaders have this responsibility because we count on them to keep organizations alive and thriving. Leading from the future is not a luxury anymore, it’s a must. To extend our metaphor of the confused seas, this ship has sailed and we’re either on it, or we’re waving good-bye.


Author: Laree Kiely, Ph.D., President, the Kiely Group. Dr Kiely served on the faculty at USC for over 15 years. In addition to currently leading the Kiely Group, she serves as faculty for leadership programs at Duke CE, UCLA, USC, Thunderbird, and Ivey (Toronto). The Kiely Group specializes in Leadership and Organizational Impact. Please send your comments, questions, and stories to us at: [email protected]


Image courtesy of http://helenotway.edublogs.org/2011/01/02/different-compass-point-same-ultimate-direction/.


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