conventional wisdom scenarios alternative futures

Why conventional wisdom is dangerous and crazy scenarios aren’t

Eric Garland Intelligence Analysis 0 Comments

I have been processing the madness and fury of the outhouse fire known as the Trump Presidential Transition through a series of unplanned (unhinged?) rants on Twitter (Original from December 11 and Extra Crispy from December 29) in which I examine how American politics got to this weird place and where we’re headed in the immediate future. The situation is extremely fluid, but my main theme has been:

  1. Trump is neither competent nor capable of becoming president because
  2. The connections to Russia and its intelligence agencies’ effect on the 2016 election are too excessive to grant him legitimacy as a president

Futurist that I am, I have been predicting since before the election that the actions of Russia, the GOP, and the current POTUS-elect are so extreme that we would see the obvious malfeasance revealed by the current American government in short order, because to let it slide would be the far-more-dangerous course of action. And ever since about nine days after the election, there has been a constant drum beat from the White House, Congress, and our nation’s Intelligence Community that this story would be told increasingly in public to warn the world of the dangers of liberal democracies destabilized in such a crass manner.

As I predicted three weeks ago, the intelligence community has since unified its assessment of Russia as the malefactor, Obama has toughened his language and ordered unprecedented sanctions to protest the influence in the 2016 elections. The FBI and DHS are beginning to reveal specific technical evidence of how Russian influence was executed on the tactical level. Due to this pattern of emergence in the news cycle, one that seems carefully planned, I thereby predict that these revelations and retaliations will continue through the next month, making it potentially impossible for a Trump Administration to take power while maintaining legitimacy. There even may be a point at which legal action is required for past activities yet to be revealed about Trump and his apparatchiks.

Not every group has been equally sanguine about my predictions, despite events following my forecast of December 11 pretty tightly. There are some in the media who say, despite these unprecedented events, that I’m foolish to suggest that something extreme might result from news drops during the next several weeks leading up to inauguration. After all, my style is occasionally outlandish (on Twitter, anyhow) and the Conventional Wisdom says that it would be too hard to dislodge Trump because Congress and SCOTUS and reasons. This analysis is designed to sound sane and reasonable, and there’s always some use to that. It’s just incomplete when it comes to accurately assessing potential outcomes and how individuals and organizations could make themselves resilient in the face of upcoming turbulence.

Actually, I think that there needs to be a review of some methodological difference between opinion journalism and intelligence analysis, particularly when it comes to uncertainty and scenarios. While a timeframe this tight is generally too restrictive for the futurist’s toolkit, the established techniques of scenario development are the best for making sure we don’t get locked into believing in one comfortable, conventional narrative as we enter into a period of great political upheaval that will affect the future of the whole world.

Types of scenarios, and how to use them for the news cycle

Some of the technical differences between how the media, particularly opinion journalists, see the future, and how strategic analysts examine the same situation are a question of knowledge of future scenarios. Despite 50 years of successful use navigating oft-dangerous situations, the scenarios skill set remains exotic to all but a few ten thousand executives, corporate technocrats, and military planners. This is a shame, because every profession could benefit from a more robust way of interpreting and preparing for alternative futures.

So let’s get into definitions.


WAIT, BIG WARNING: There are multiple schools of futures studies, from the original work of Hermann Kahn and the Rand Corporation, to Peter Schwartz’s work at Royal Dutch Shell and Global Business Network, to the French school (to which I am largely an adherent) of Michel Godet. The terminology varies from school to school – occasionally causing frivolous and annoying internecine fisticuffs – but the concepts are all similar. If you want an full treatment of the matter, this paper on scenario types is exhaustive. I present here the amalgamation of terms that I use after twenty years in the field of intelligence analysis.


Descriptive and normative scenarios

Let us call these the “normal-sounding” or “plausible” futures. A descriptive scenario is a view of the future built on a consensus of the most likely outcomes based on trends currently visible and expected to develop in a predictable, incremental manner. Normative scenarios combine the most plausible future with a statement as to where the organization would like to end up in such an outcome.

If we put this into the current political terms, a normative scenario for the Democrats might be that Trump gets inaugurated as planned (because nothing extreme emerges to change that), he is harassed and blocked by an aggressive opposition in the Congress, the Dems adjust to the new political environment, shift tactics, and the 2018 elections are a blowout.

For the Republicans, a normative scenario might be that despite Democratic opposition and revelations by the outgoing Obama Administration, Trump takes office and despite hiccups, the White House and Congress coalesce, some popular new bills get passed, and the 2018 election consolidates their power.

Note that these scenarios involve a heavy reliance on the conventional wisdom, a lack of further wildcard events – Russia invades the Baltics, Canada invades Vermont, China refuses to send us iPhones – and thus scenarios are developed where the parties attempt to make incremental changes to take advantage of a system developing along normal lines.

This is the type of futures thinking with which the media is most comfortable because to express it bespeaks a savvy familiarity with how things work, the most important currency for mainstream media outlets.

The problem is, that’s not how the world actually works. In fact, when there are complex systems and multiple actors with diverse goals, the likely scenarios may be of lower perceived probability and higher impact. Those are more worthy of our focus as they can reveal the most threats – and opportunities.

Wildcard and alternative scenarios

The greatest value of scenario analysis comes not when examining the future based on what we already perceive to be likely, but in exploring the potentially radical combination of strategic trends with wildcard events, or what Peter Schwartz terms predictable surprises, plausible events that would result in a major shift.

Examples:

  • Soviet collapse in 1991
  • Attacks of September 11, 2001
  • Meltdown of mortgage market spreads globally

Wildcards are high-impact events we can envision given current understanding of risk, even though we perceive them to be of low probability.


NOTE: This is not the same as Nassim Nicholas Taleb’s concept of black swans, or unknown unknowns. The distinction here is frequently missed and such misuse is very likely to result in Taleb calling you an idiot online in English, French, or Aramaic/Syriac. I am probably even getting this part wrong, and he will soon call me an idiot. I recommend his books regardless.


Building scenarios around Schwartz’s predictable surprises (as opposed to black swans, which are by definition impervious to scenario planning) means looking at an unstable system – in today’s example, an unprecedented situation where an unpopular president-elect is increasingly revealed to be indebted to foreign actors – and asking which events might unlock the greatest disruption, why, and what might result.

My threads on Twitter have attempted to create scenarios that embrace the unusual and unprecedented because we have simply never been in such a chaotic or dangerous political situation when it involves the Executive Branch. Now, I believe that given the trend lines of increased revelations of the Trump Administration’s connections to Russia, additional actors who appear to have attempted to impact the election – especially from the tech sector – and Trump’s erratic and improper behavior, assuming normality is the far riskier scenario.

Getting ready for them nuclear codes, 2016 stylee.

I mean, the guy is hanging out with Don King in Mar-a-Lago talking about how Russia doesn’t exist and computers complicate the complications, something something. Also, China can go screw! And that Duterte guy seems nice. Ergo, when we’re simultaneously busting Russian intelligence rings and discovering that the man’s pick for Secretary of State has received the highest civilian honor from Russia, I think it’s time to assume that the intelligence community, the current President, NATO, Kim Kardashian, Putin, Hollande, Pikachu, Merkel, and Beyoncé might have something up their sleeves between now and inauguration day. Exploring scenarios along these lines can teach us our own assumptions about what a Constitutional crisis would look like, how NATO fares in such upheaval, what our political parties might do in response, and so on.

After all, there isn’t one future in futures studies. There are multiple possibilities and we study them to think more deeply and with greater insight, not to win bets.

These complex alternative scenarios are very unlikely to appear in standard or opinion journalism because they cannot be sourced by past events or current witnesses; they take conjecture. This tendency toward the normative is understandable professional cautiousness, not necessarily cowardice because the mainstream (an unfairly vilified term) media publishes regularly and wants to be seen as a source of authority. Getting it wrong, even when using rigorous and helpful tools to explore possibilities, threatens that authority.

This is why occasionally outlandish, frequently mockable, unconventional futurists do their work in the first place. People in positions of official responsibility rarely have the latitude to think outside of the box no matter how many damn times they’ve insincerely told professionals that it’s a good thing. In highly political organizations – which is to say all of them – taking such intellectual risks can bear bitter fruit. This is one of the many reasons a separate professional discipline has surfaced around future trends, uncertainty, and scenarios.

In chaotic moments of history, this can be of significant value.


If you’re interested in learning more on how to think about the future, my first book, Future, Inc. explains how foresight works in basic clear language. My second book, How to Predict the Future…and WIN!!! lampoons why futurists and executives get it wrong anyway, and how we can improve foresight in our organizations.