A symposium for Civil Service ‘Horizon Scanners’ and decision-makers. Shrivenham 15th Jan 2013.
How to get more attention [and funding] from decision-makers?
Tuesday was my first taste of a ‘Horizon Scanners’ symposium. It was free to attend. Thank you to CSaP University of Cambridge.
Two approaches to “Horizon Scanning” were evident.
- One approach develops a deterministic model of the current landscape, identifies the different drivers that make sense and to which there is a measured vulnerability. This approach is probably best described as evidence-based resilience testing with targeted enquiry to identify when priority threats and opportunities are emerging. I wouldn’t call it horizon scanning I would call it risk management. An excellent example of this is the National Institute for Health Research Horizon Scanning Centre and of course, the Radar service.
- The second collects opinions based essentially on strongly held subjective perceptions. Having identified what would worry or appeal to the audience, and with a few facts, practitioners develop stories which draw attention to those emotional issues. This could I suppose, lead on to tangible analysis once the preferred story is identified, but no-one said this at the meeting. In practice it seems similar to systematic tools that are usually used for developing propaganda/marketing campaigns.
Neither of these approaches gives rise to the perfect futures tool. Neither is used in isolation, though the first tends to have very little of the second. In both approaches, the customer defines the story. If they are not listening it is because they have asked for the wrong thing. Given its nature, the second method, if it is any good at all, really ought not to have to ask how to get more attention!
Evident at the meeting was a determined antipathy towards experts as horizon scanners. On reflection this is really nothing more than a recognition that the story telling group don’t have the ability to manage expert input. Experts, so they say, limit the scope of the stories that can be told. The non-expert describes the expert as, unsuitable.
Regardless of the merits here, different client groups want different things and some decision-makers are focussed on narrative reality: stories built upon stories, built upon stories, others, have a successful deterministic model and stick to it.
The subjective approach will be highly susceptible to semantic analysis i.e. the number of times an idea is described as ‘new’, ‘breakthrough’, ‘catastrophe’ will affect the outcome of any analysis. There are all kinds of semantic analysis tools devoted to the internet, social media, scientific journals and conference proceedings. Collective opinion has a place in decision-making.
The following risk management concepts were given an airing at the meeting:
- Institutions are most profitable/efficient/viral when they are built on orthodoxy. But [and this is what they should have added] measured efficiency never includes any analysis of the opportunity cost of doing the wrong thing more efficiently.
- Change arises from: necessity, uncertainty and unorthodoxy. [They should have added that change arises from success too].
- Analysis will help bring the current landscape into clearer focus.
One story-teller suggested there might be yet more to learn from risk managers!
In my opinion, the story tellers will find they have to become risk managers, so that their statements can be monetised. Money is the only way that priorities can be rationally compared. But for now, there is a ready ear for a good story regardless of tangible benefits and manifest uncertainties.
Best quote of the day was provided by a story-teller of course. Russ Ackoff apparently gave rise to the observation that being more efficiently wrong is just ‘wronger’; and added: better to do the right thing badly and then improve. Efficiency is the product of expert orthodoxy (sneer), but the speaker here should have added that it gives rise to profits and enables the future and pays his consultancy fee. Go figure.
There was a truly useful presentation from Peter Ho. Essentially: surprising big problems are most likely in complex systems. ‘Complexity’ is characterised by feedback mechanisms e.g. supply and demand, fashionable beliefs, religion, democracy…: and by large second derivatives (I paraphrase, he would have said this if he was a bit more mathematically minded). ‘Complicated’ is the term used to describe deterministic systems such as communications satellites. Complexity and complicated should not be confused with each other.
His advice was that for deterministic systems, you should rely mostly on deterministic management. For complex systems you need the capacity for complex management i.e. in some way try to match the complexity of the management to the complexity of what it is you are managing.
The goal of the analyst is to enable adaptation – not to predict the future.
My own bias is that risk managers should make their transactional space as deterministic as possible so that quantitative tools can be used. BUT they should also attempt to identify where complexity can upset the plan, and having done so, should develop appropriate trigger conditions and actions. That is, make complexity as deterministic as possible.
Dougal Goodman observed that decision makers are most likely to listen when you say something that helps with the problem they are currently focussed on. Feet firmly back on the ground!
Both approaches are vulnerable to misinformation and bias. This should be tested for when it matters.
The first approach can and does quantitatively inform risk appetite judgements, the second may be more persuasive in justifying decisions already made for other reasons.
Just in case there is semantic analysis at work here, this article is a breakthrough, ground-breaking, radical, timely, entirely new, breathtaking, a revelation. For the analysts, this article is not representative and suffers from unrecognised cognitive bias. For the narrative horizon scanner this article is best not described until it is clear which view will give rise to the most influence/biggest contract.