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Provocations

On the Skids

It is only Tuesday and already this week has seen the appointment and belated departure of someone from the centre of government whose only claims to fame seemed to be abhorrent views and membership of something called The Albert Tatlock Superguessers Club?

Good riddance.

But he made me think about the various ways humanity tries to cope with uncertainty and how we see those patterns emerge in change programmes more generally.

The Superguessers are an example of what I would call the Soothsayer pattern. Soothsayers work on the basis that there is some way of assigning certainty to the unknown. They do this through rituals that are “science-y”, there are diagrams and charts, mysterious tools, impenetrable jargon which contains the odd scientific sounding term. “Computers” always come into it as they have a view of technology rooted in the 1950’s. Big data is another touchstone of this pattern, if only we have enough entrails the truth will emerge.

To the outsider, this stuff can be confused with science. The Soothsayers have slide decks, recommendations, lots and LOTS of data, and examples of where Superguessing worked.

So how could they be wrong? Well

But to be fair, it’s much more usually self-delusion. Being wise after the event is embedded deeply enough in the human psyche to be proverbial after all.

The real problem with Soothsayers is when they get confused with or create noise around real risk management and forecasting.

Some types of events are certain – there will be another flu pandemic in the future. Corvid-19 may become a pandemic but even if it does not we know that there will be one at some point. Our focus therefore is on planning for what we do when it happens. How do we maintain core services? How do we minimise loss of life? How do we keep people engaged and informed? How do we minimise infection and maximise recovery?

Each of these is a block of actions – some are practical steps to do in the event of; some of are about plan writing, countermeasures or mitigation development; some are scenario planning and exercises. Much of this is deeply mundane and to be frank, for a bear, very tedious work. But it is all necessary and rooted in reality.

Similarly we have to triage resources against the infinity of future threats so we model the most immediately likely potential threats and then look at our box of responses and decide if we need to add new ones or increase the scale of existing ones. We then keep checking if the threats have changed, have new ones emerged or old ones grown?

The fundamental point is that this is not about gazing into a crystal ball, it’s about building a flexible set of building blocks to allow us to respond to the future.

And sometimes, as with Protect and Survive, it’s about admitting that there is no realistic response and that providing a distraction is the “kindest” thing.

People obsessing about some kind of Oracle of the future are seeking the impossible. Past returns are no guarantee of future performance. If the Superguessers’ powers worked then we would not have a stock market…

Being human is to understand that the future is a vast probability space and we have limited ability to make any useful, definitive statements about it.

Being intelligent is to therefore plan to respond to known risks and threats, like pandemics, in a way that is flexible and universal enough to give us a chance to triage a response to minimise loss of life and maximise “business as usual”.

The Soothsayer pattern is a tragic one. It is also a deeply seductive one.

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