Nostalgia is a wonderful thing, or at least it used to be. There was a time when we looked forward to more of everything we hoped for and had a good chance of it arriving. Or that was what we thought. We were planners, full of ideas about the things we were going to do, personally as well as in business. We had confidence in the future, in our expectations.   That was then, and it now seems like a faraway time.

911 was a shock, especially for the US military establishment, but it was an event that simply reinforced a trend that has become established over recent decades, and now pervades thinking in many avenues from defence strategy to cyber security. In a world of fragmentation, diversity, rapid change and technological shift, it’s increasingly hard to identify threats and their sources. Thinking has changed from analysing threats, to understanding vulnerabilities. 

There was a time when the implications of Brexit was the big unknown, but we now know that it was an identifiable threat with a range of tactical uncertainties, most of which could be calibrated with some confidence. What we didn’t anticipate, more that theoretically, was the pandemic that arrived and has almost overwhelmed us. It has even caused more border disruption in a matter of hours than the impending and identified complexities of Brexit’s January 1st cliff edge.

The era of unpredictability has arrived

They used to say about Errol Flynn that the one thing you could depend on was that he was undependable. Like him, the one thing we can be certain of, now, is that little is certain. Oddly, Brexit seems almost predictable in its implications compared with the pandemic and its fallout for the way market segments have been changed, taxation, health and society, the world of work and human interaction. These things have a long way to run, and conflate with Climate Change and the way globalisation and geopolitics are shifting.

I often hear people wondering how long it will be before things get back to normal. We will not return to the way things were in 2019, that’s for sure – that normal is long gone.  If normal means predictability, then that normal is long gone, too. This is the era of volatility, uncertainty, complexity and ambiguity, or VUCA as the phrase was coined by the US military.  Unpredictability is now normal, and we must normalise it in our way of thinking.

The principles that James and I established when we started Flexiion six years ago are as solid today and underpin decision making in the world that’s now normal. Ultra lean, ultimately flexible and agile, with a small number of pivotal golden rules, and an open mind as to the precise journey we take.

Decision makers in this world must be able to ride bigger waves of uncertainty, they must have the insight to spot those things that really change the game amongst the blizzard of stuff going on, and then react quickly and decisively. Shell has been developing these techniques since the 1970s, and Shell Scenarios are now a culture that’s deeply embedded across their senior teams: insight, an open mind and decisive execution.

Normal is what’s predictable, and what we now know for certain is just how little is predictable. At last, everything is normal again, and we can start to make plans for it.

Peter is chairman of Flexiion and has a number of other business interests. (c) 2020, Peter Osborn