Planning for Unpredictability

The recent Seth Godin blog post ‘Our inability to see ahead‘ talks about the perils of planning in an unpredictable world and closes with the reflection “Assume that your plans are wrong… Expect that you’ll be surprised".

Seth’s point – that it’s dangerous or naive to place too much reliance on plans, and the planning process, when our environment is so dynamic – is a good one; The Butterfly Effect (aka Chaos Theory, aka Law of Unintended Consequences) suggests that even the tiniest unforeseen influence can generate an exponential, even catastrophic impact on a system or plan. 

But what’s our alternative? We can hardly just act randomly and hope for the best. 

I think it comes down to a mix of reactive flexibility (how we respond to our fluid environment), and proactive influence (how we encourage, or direct, the flow).

The reactive aspect, and it’s perhaps also slightly protectionist, is about mitigating the damage that uncertainty can wreak – for example:

  • Using Risk Assessment principles to challenge strategy and marketing initiatives by sketching out the boundaries of the worst and best outcomes you could imagine, and then considering the protections and mitigating strategies you could put in place.
  • Making pragmatic and informed decisions – Don’t just assume that things are as you expect or remember them being. Gather as much intelligence as possible before making critical decisions (see my recent ‘Half Empty or Half Full‘ post). But be mindful that your insight will never be perfect – avoid falling into analysis paralysis.
  • Being mindful of potential unintended fallout from your actions – e.g. out of context events or communications, be they internal correspondence that inevitably somehow finds its way to the public domain, or targeted marketing messages or offers that might give conflicting messages if viewed by an unintended audience.

The proactive approach is more about harnessing unpredictability and seeking to make it work for you:

  • Control what you can control: Be clear about your vision (or destination), and your values (or protocols). Together these determine where you are aiming for and how you will deal with each unpredictable situation you come across. You can then be flexible on the step by step route you end up following, and not be thrown by the inevitable detours or missing road signs along the way.
  • Experiment: Unpredictability can also work in your favour; it’s important to test out different approaches and learn from the range of results you achieve – good and bad. As I mentioned in my last blog (‘I Don’t Care What Anything Was Designed To Do..‘), sometimes it’s good to shake things up a little with a new burst of activity and a different approach.
  • My final (and favourite) point is about karma, well, business karma. Unpredictability is a powerful force, and there’s a lot to say for just ‘putting it out there’ and letting nature do its thing. For example, push your message out and contribute through a range of marketing and networking channels, both on and offline, and you will find you build up equity and momentum and recognition that starts to take on a life of its own. 

How important is all this? Look up Gerald Ratner (1991 Ratners), John Pluthero (2006 Cable & Wireless), David Shephard (2001 Topman) (…the list goes on..) for some painful examples of the Law of Unintended Consequences in action.

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