4 reasons why an increased pace of change means greater unpredictability


I am writing this in the air over the Rockies, flying back from a scenario planning workshop I ran for a client yesterday.

Over the last dozen years that I have been running scenario planning projects I have observed that corporate interest in scenario planning is cyclical. The time horizons that executives think in tend to be driven by the health of their business, the recency of prominent unanticipated events such as the global financial crisis or Middle East upheaval, and visibility of challenges to their business model.

In my experience interest in scenario planning is picking up strongly, reflecting a variety of recent surprises of various kinds, as well as a general feeling of prosperity that permits budgets for the like of scenario projects.

I believe it is also linked to an increased sense that the pace of change is increasing. This is hardly a new sentiment – back from the nineteenth century and probably before many have spoken of a faster pace of change.

The extraordinary connectivity of the Internet and mobile phones has been frequently been described as perhaps the biggest and fastest change in human history, yet there have been plenty of sceptics saying that it is not having more impact than many other new technologies over the centuries.

It is the incontrovertible rise of social technologies over the last few years, most notably the now 600 million avid users of Facebook, that has convinced many that these are unique times. When the exponential growth of technology is directly connected to social change, as we are experiencing in a plethora of ways ranging from how children socialize to Middle Eastern geopolitics, it doesn’t take being a geek to grasp today’s extraordinary pace of change.

My experience is that CEOs and other top executives today need no convincing that the pace of change is increasing. They take it as a given.

A faster pace of change absolutely requires more nimble organizations than ever before. Companies and government agencies must shift quickly in response to change, or they will simply fail, or fail to be relevant.

However, as a client executive proposed to me yesterday, a faster pace of change doesn’t necessarily mean that the future is less predictable. If faster change is fundamentally driven by known elements such as connectivity and processing power, then that change can be mapped and planned for. It’s a fair point.

Given a little thought, I’d like to offer four reasons why unpredictability is increasing along with the pace of the underlying drivers.

1. System structure
Continuity of structures and organizations depends on self-reinforcing systems. Many organizations, political structures, and social systems have successfully sustained themselves for years or decades despite being fundamentally structurally unsound. In many cases the social discontinuity enabled by connectivity is touching key leverage points that can completely change the system.

2. New shapes to business models
New business models that bring together resources in new ways are being enabled by increasing connectivity, resulting in more rapid challenges to existing businesses.

3. Exponential technologies move into new domains
Exponential technological change is broadening the scope of its impact. Notably, genetic and DNA technologies are beginning to impact biological and medical domains.

4. Uncovering new aspects of human nature
As society – which is about human connection and communication – increasingly intersects with exponential growth of communication technologies, we are uncovering new aspects of our latent humanity. Not only are we learning new things about ourselves, we are also working out how to deal with these. We do not even know who we will be in 5-10 years.

I am sure there are more good reasons. What else is there? Or if you think predictability is not decreasing, why?