Strategy and future uncertainty

This week I’ve read two interesting perspectives on planning and the future. Though very different, both pieces advocate greater exploration of uncertainty and looking further into the future when developing strategies.

In Dark Matter Futures, US futurist Frank Spencer makes a case for being open to unknown ideas and concepts, engaging in active exploration without committing to a single answer, and becoming comfortable with multiple possibilities when developing strategies. Why? Scientists admit that how they understand the universe depends on a ‘fudge’ (which they call ‘dark matter’) which fills in gaps in their knowledge, helping them to make sense of what they presently do know. Likewise, in our world, as we plan to respond, adapt to or influence changing political, economic, social and technological trends, there is much that we don’t know about what the future will look like. However, recognising and exploring this ‘dark matter’ will help us to develop strategies that can start to address future challenges and opportunities and not just present ones.

Is this aspirational in the VCS context? Perhaps it is in terms of exploring the approaches Frank advocates, which require time and new knowledge and skills. But I think that introducing a little more reflection on uncertainty and unknown unknowns can only make our strategic thinking and planning richer, more challenging, more creative and ultimately more effective.

In Why aren't governments planning for emerging threats?, Dr Randolph Kent, director of the Humanitarian Futures Programme, at King's College, London, argues that there is an accountability gap in humanitarian planning.

‘That gap is the failure of those with humanitarian roles, responsibilities and influence to inform and prepare potentially crisis-affected publics about the types of threats they will have to face in the foreseeable future. This failure also explains in no small part why there is so little evidence of efforts to identify, mitigate and where possible undertake prevention measures for dealing with longer-term threats.’

For those of us not working in the humanitarian sector, it is worth considering whether a similar gap might be present in our own planning. Do we consider our accountability (or responsibility) to the users and beneficiaries of our future? Do we understand who they might be and how their needs may differ from our current users? Are there things we could be doing now to make the future better for them? (For example, NCVO's 'Get Ready for Climate Change' work aims to encourage non-environmental organisations to understand how climate change will impact on current users in the medium term future as well as potentially create new service users).  

In particular, he accuses the NGO humanitarian sector of lapsing into ‘managerialism’ rather than demonstrating strategic leadership and commitment to advocacy. A strong accusation and I’d be interested in whether those in the sector agree or disagree! His suggested solution is to focus more on anticipating possible futures (‘the "what might be's"’) and less on reactive work, which is where his argument echoes Frank’s.  As Frank puts it:

‘The unknown is no longer something to avoid, but rather allows us create solutions to problems that do not yet exist! In our world of volatility and ambiguity, this type of thinking and acting is not an option, but a requirement.’

One reasonably simple tool which can help organisations to explore uncertainty is scenario planning. We have written a simple guide to scenario planning specifically for voluntary and community organisations. NCVO also has advice on managing risk and uncertainty including a step by step guide.

Last updated at 10:51 Thu 25/Nov/10.
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Interesting. The dark matter concept reminds me of the sub/pre-conscious stuff Malcolm Gladwell talks about in 'Blink' - the sum of our experiences instantly guiding our reactions to people, places, situations.

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