How to deal with chaos and unpredictability?

When it comes to envisaging the development of current trends, humans tend to believe that things will just go on as they are indefinitely. Unfortunately, as a rule of thumb, that doesn’t always hold true – chaos and unpredictability cannot be dismissed when anticipating the future.

George Orwell was no different in his assumptive forecasting when writing his famous near-future dystopia, 1984. He began writing the novel in 1944, when Nazi power had taken hold in Europe. He had witnessed the rise of fascism in previous decades, as well, so it made sense that he foresaw the continued trend of dictatorial systems of government. But – thankfully – that didn’t turn out to be the case.

In reality, future events occur because various factors converge. And these, by nature, are frequently unforeseeable. Consider the largely unanticipated rise of the personal computer. Computers, as we know them, came to exist because various breakthroughs in numerous fields all converged simultaneously. Mathematics and robotics made great strides forward, while advances in microwave signal processing and silicon circuits also developed.

If you’d wanted to predict the rise of computers, it would have been necessary to know that developments in mathematics would massively expand the potential of computer programming languages. Equally, you’d have to have surmised that silicon circuits would be better than the vacuum tubes used in old-fashioned computers. Finally, you’d have to have known that older technologies, like radio waves, would be repurposed to transmit binary information. Needless to say, almost no one was in a position to predict what would later become not only possible, but commonplace.

As we have seen, predicting the future is no easy task. With that said, there are still techniques that can help in prediction and decision-making. One increasingly popular method used for predicting the future is using red teams.

A red team is a group that is created within an organization. The team acts as though it were the ‘enemy’ when the larger organization is in the process of making strategic decisions. For instance, an army unit might be considering the options open to them for launching an effective attack. Once they’ve formulated their plans, they’ll pass them onto a red team. The red team will then enter fully into the mind of the enemy and map out all the different ways they could counter a potential attack.

Using red teams has proven highly effective in a variety of spheres. Famously, they were instrumental in the decision-making that resulted in the operation that led to the death of Osama Bin Laden in May 2011. Early in 2011, the American National Counterterrorism Center was drawing up plans to storm a mysterious compound in Abbottabad, Pakistan. It was there they suspected Osama Bin Laden was in hiding. The assembled red team reckoned that there was only a 50/50 chance Bin Laden would be found in the compound. But, more critically, their input meant the US government was better prepared for the unexpected.

It was actually the red team that spotted the issue that having an unauthorized American army aircraft crossing Pakistani airspace might cause problems. Consequently, in the months before the attack, the government worked on diplomatic ties with Russia and with the shipping network in the Baltic Sea – all so that the covert squad would have an additional route in and out of Pakistan. There was a chance they would need it if the Pakistani government reacted aggressively to the covert operation. Of course, they found Bin Laden in the compound. The preparation of the red team helped make the mission more robust.

Ronald Reagan’s legacy as a US president is largely defined by his conservative agenda. Just think of his professed desire to cut taxes and government spending, as well as bolster the military. What’s less known, though, are his ideas that found bipartisan support, most notably his advocacy of cost-benefit analysis in decision-making.

In February 1981, Reagan signed an Executive Order. This necessitated a cost-benefit analysis to be conducted for every new regulation under governmental consideration. This analysis required that potential benefits and costs of a putative new regulation be listed. Critically, that remit stretched beyond monetary terms. Proposed measures had to demonstrate the overall benefit. Finally, alternatives to the regulation had to be examined to ensure the best solution was the one being executed.

Cost-benefit analysis is demonstrably for the good. And nowhere is this clearer than in environmental protection. Under the Obama administration, cost-benefit analysis was used to support the argument for increasing environmental protection. Simply, the social costs of carbon dioxide emissions were calculated.

Experts from the Office of Energy and Climate Change, the Council on Environmental Quality and many other governmental departments and agencies sat down together to work out the long-term effects and costs of the carbon that was being released into the atmosphere. Envisaged social costs included reduced agricultural yields, catastrophic weather events and forced population migration due to rising sea levels. The experts concluded that the social cost was $36 per ton of carbon dioxide released. Even though many external parties thought that this was still too conservative a calculation, it was the first time environmental costs had been monetized by the US government. It was the first step to ensuring the issue would be taken more seriously in governmental decision-making in the future.

So are you far sighted?

Check out my related post: How can you be in the moment?

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