And Yet You Are Expected To Place Bets Anyway
by Jeremy Nulik
Twenty years ago, back in good old 2019, we had some challenges. We solved them in a SWOT analysis session right before the New Year. We had plans. We had schemes and designs for expansion and growth.
More importantly, we had the data. It showed up on every other PowerPoint slide in default color schemes. It showed us the market opportunities. It displayed the predictable pattern of business. It made us feel certain. The good old data-driven days of 2019.
The trouble now is that all of those pie charts and spreadsheets are no longer relevant. The predicted patterns have been disrupted. So how can we evaluate new opportunities if there is not any evidence that the world will be the same after this?
A crisis like the one we are facing today offers a chance to try out the most novel of notions about what our future could be. Because there is not an empirical basis for strategic assertions, then that emancipates us to explore the unknown - to lean into the uncertain.
The challenge is that most of us interpret the future as a vast gray space. It is why those brainstorming exercises and strategic sessions can feel either anodyne or silly.
A useful way to begin to explore possibility is through a technique that futurists have used for decades. It is called 100 Ways Anything Can Be Different. Jane McGonigal, director at the Institute for the Future, has championed the use of this technique as a way to improve mental flexibility. Here is how it works:
List 100 things that are true about anything. This can be about your business or (better) your industry. This can be done virtually. Collectively come up with 100 things you know for certain about a thing.
Pick one of the 100 things and make it not true. This is a version of reality in which that assumption you had is reversed.
Create an artifact from that simulated reality. You can make a video or just write a story collectively that involves the reversed assumption.
An example: I manage a restaurant. My task is to list 100 things I know (for certain) about restaurants. One of those things might be, “Restaurants serve food.” So, if I were to reverse that assumption, “Restaurants do not serve food,” I would create a version of that reality. In this reality, patrons would turn to restaurants for services such as consulting of food flavor profiles based on a desired experience or as labs to run experiments.
The point is not to come up with a particular plan, but to expose what is possible. If you and your team can explore the space of what could be, you will increase your competency in dealing with our volatile world, and you may unlock your next innovation.
Ultimately, what this crisis may help us to expose are the flimsy limbs on which our logic for our present systems stood. If you can begin a practice like this, you can develop a kind of muscle memory for dealing with the unknown. The unknown was there before the pandemic. And it will be there long after the pandemic is gone. The future belongs to those who understand that it is not a point on a horizon at which we arrive. Rather the future as a concept is subterfuge for dealing with our intentions in the present day.
It turns out that those “good old days” when we could strategize our way out of problems were the simulation. They were full of assumptions and make-believe. And the best way to place bets in reality is to first attempt to contour what could be before we are so certain about what is.
Jeremy Nulik (firstname.lastname@example.org) is evangelist prime at bigwidesky, a human business consultancy, in St. Louis, Mo.