We do our very best to predict the future. In the airport industry, for example, decisions to invest in major new infrastructure are not taken lightly.
A thorough business case must be prepared before money is committed.
Passenger growth projections are reviewed, business scenarios developed and cash flow forecasts examined. Environmental and social impact studies are commissioned.
Yet in reality, these plans, forecasts and projections rarely turn out as expected. Who, for instance, could have foreseen that an exploding Icelandic volcano in 2010 would result in the largest air traffic shut down since the Second World War?
And who really knows what the impact of technological innovation, environmental considerations, security concerns or social and political change will be on future demand for air travel?
The fact is that we live in a ‘VUCA’ world – a world characterised by Volatility, Uncertainty, Complexity and Ambiguity – which makes the unexpected the real predictability.
We need to be prepared not only to expect the unexpected but also to have strategies for dealing with it.
Yet most people find dealing with uncertainty difficult. Rather than face up to VUCA realities, our tendency is to look for facts and evidence that support our preconceptions or to follow people who claim confidently that they alone have the answer. Are there other approaches that might be better?
Have the courage to experiment
Old mindsets and mental models don’t always work when times are changing. As Peter Drucker says: “The greatest danger in times of turbulence is not the turbulence – it is to act with yesterday’s logic.” Innovative approaches may be required. Learn from others who have had similar experiences and be ready to try out new approaches.
Prepare for the worst
People have an inbuilt ‘optimism bias’, which means we don’t like to think through worst case scenarios or indeed any potential outcomes we don’t like. This positive tendency serves us well and keeps us healthy in everyday situations, but is unhelpful in times of crisis or uncertainty. ‘Thinking the unthinkable’ saves us time and helps us be prepared when things don’t turn out as we’d hoped.
Build resilience and mental toughness
Why do some people and organisations persevere through difficulties and others give up? Research carried out to identify the characteristics which allow some people to thrive under pressure shows the importance of confidence, a sense of being in control and seeing unexpected change as an opportunity rather than a threat. These qualities can all be developed and learned.
Making plans for the future is sensible but we must be prepared for a wide range of possible outcomes and develop the capabilities to adjust and adapt speedily when the unexpected happens.
In a VUCA world, the only thing we should ever doubt is certainty.