Surviving uncertainty: a business tool for life's unexpected moments

As we watch unemployment climb, the deficit multiply and markets surge, it's crucial to remember that while some people claim to be able tell you what's coming next, the reality is that nobody can know the future.
Don Pittis, senior producer of CBC News Business
It's an uncertain life, and with half the experts telling us the economy is in recovery and the other half warning of a protracted collapse, things right now are as uncertain as ever.

As we watch unemployment climb, the deficit multiply and markets surge, it's crucial to remember that while some people claim to be able tell you what's coming next, the reality is that nobody can know the future.

Problem is, from the serious to the mundane, surprising news can hurt. Losing a bundle in the markets. Having a baby just before your marriage breaks up. Diagnosis of an illness just when you are planning the holiday-of-a-lifetime. Buying an SUV the year before oil prices spike. Buying a house, then losing your job.

That kind of hurt can drive people to reach out in desperation for direction and advice.

This week, for example, a viewer wrote in asking why one of the market commentators on CBC News Business had failed to warn him that the stock market would rise like a rocket from its March lows. If he had known, the viewer complained, he would have bought then and made 40 per cent on his money.

Some people are convinced that experts really know all the answers. That scientists actually know what the future holds. That economists actually know what the value of the Canadian dollar will be next year. That interest rates and stock markets are predictable.

People who understand the complexity of the world know that is never true.

The man who brought us the Gaia theory 30 years ago was on CBC Radio recently giving his latest dire predictions, for example. I thought it provided a good example: Gaia theory is the idea that the Earth is a single, giant living organism. But James Lovelock has moved beyond those original theories.

Speaking to Anna Maria Tremonti on The Current, Lovelock predicted that global warming is going to wipe out the greater part of humanity. He paints a picture of a world so hot that most of it is scrub and desert, where Canada is one of the few remaining habitable areas of the planet.

Disaster coming?

He believes that this disaster is coming within 30 to 100 years and that the Kyoto Protocol and other efforts can only slow the process, not stop it. So maybe it's time to buy swampland in Manitoba and plan some future rice paddies.

But then again, maybe not.

Another group of very clever futurologists proposes the "singularity theory" (CBC Radio Ideas has a great podcast on the subject ) where machine intelligence is increasing so quickly that computers will surpass human intelligence within 30 years.

So maybe those smart computers can solve Lovelock's problem of global warming and that swampland will stay swampy. Or maybe they'll just take over and global warming will be the least of our worries.

The point is that it's very hard to know.

Looking 30 years into the future is so bizarre it boggles the mind. Will oil be too expensive to burn as economist  Jeff Rubin says in his new book? Or in 30 years will oil have completely ceased to matter? That kind of uncertainty makes long-term planning unusually difficult, on both a global and a personal scale.

Of course, in a sea of predictions some will turn out to be right. But those who get it right once often get it wrong the next time.

Celebrating the winners of the prediction lottery creates an illusion that prediction is possible. World events are always seen in hindsight, and as you watch the interview with the predictor who got it right, you are left with the feeling any fool should have seen the credit crunch coming. That the oil price collapse was inevitable. That if only you had paid attention, the recent market rise from March till now was a foregone conclusion.

In markets, at least, there is proof of a sort that this is false perception. If it really were obvious the market was about to rise 40 per cent, everyone would have bought the day before the market went up. But of course they didn't.

Real life doesn't happen in hindsight. Looking forward, that huge market drop that is coming this summer, or, as the other group says, the imminent market rise, is impossible to foresee.

In business, dealing with the unexpected can make the difference between survival and bankruptcy. That's why businesses pay so much to try to guess at what will happen next.

They hire lots of smart economists. They pay millions of dollars for data. And despite all the money they spend, the majority of the high-price talent usually gets it wrong — it is the odd man out who often gets it right.

Some smart businesses have learned this and they have adopted a different kind of system called "scenario planning," and it's a tool we can all use in our daily lives. The brilliance of scenario planning is that it assumes as one of its basic tenets that we cannot know the future with certainty.

The principle is simple: A company imagines a series of plausible futures, some where the Canadian dollar is very high, some where the dollar is low. Some where the price of oil hits $200 US a barrel, some where it falls to $30.

Of course, creating an infinite number of scenarios is impossible. But a company that makes or uses steel would concentrate on feeding steel prices into its scenarios. Cheese makers would include the availability of milk.

In a famous scenario planning case, in the early 1970s Shell Oil imagined a world where petroleum prices shot through the roof. When it worked through that scenario, Shell realized such a sudden move would weaken or even kill the company.

Strategy altered

A rise in oil prices was not expected, but Shell altered its strategy so that if such a relatively unlikely event did occur, it would still survive. It made the decision just in time for the first oil crisis of 1973, and being prepared vaulted Shell ahead of the competition. 

This is the other secret of scenario planning. While it may help businesses find the best strategy, its best feature is its ability to warn them away from strategies that lead to certain, or likely, failure.  

In life, as in business, the uncomfortable reality is that things happen that you cannot foresee. Any of us can lose a job we thought was safe. Anyone's marriage can fail.

Uncertainty breeds caution — this is why planning for important life decisions seems almost impossible. It is well known that most of us don't focus on important things like pensions and investing for retirement, for example, until the train is screaming toward us with its whistle blaring.

But it is crucial to avoid paralysis. Putting off prudent planning until it's too late, or at the other extreme being trapped quivering in bed, the mattress lumpy with our savings, is no way to live life.

Even without the resources of Shell Oil we can sort through the possibilities, and imagination is a precious tool. Imagine a world when our entire savings are in a volatile stock and the markets go sour. Picture the massive job losses and what that would mean.

Don't dwell on it, but if it worries you, picture the scene and let it play out. And you will be better prepared, on a basic level.

Don't rely solely on others to predict the future. Look to the future yourself and if you see a path leading to a nasty end, there's still time to look for a better route.

Don Pittis is senior producer of CBC News Business. He has reported on business for Radio Hong Kong, the BBC and the CBC.