Friday, August 16, 2019

How To Think About The Future (Part 2 - What Do You Control?)

Click on the image above to see the full mindmap.

I am writing a series of posts about how to think about the future.  In case you missed Part 1, you can find it here:

How To Think About The Future (Part 1 -- Questions About Questions)

These posts represent my own views and do not represent the official policy or positions of the US Army or the War College, where I currently work.


The great Stoic philosopher Epictetus wrote
"Work, therefore to be able to say to every harsh appearance, 'You are but an appearance, and not absolutely the thing you appear to be.' And then examine it by those rules which you have, and first, and chiefly, by this: whether it concerns the things which are in our own control, or those which are not; and, if it concerns anything not in our control, be prepared to say that it is nothing to you." (Italics mine)
There are good reasons to focus on questions about things you control.  Things you control you can understand or, at least, the data required to understand them is much easier to get.  Things you control you can also change (or change more easily).  Finally, you only get credit for the things you do with the things you control.  Few people get credit for just watching. 

Whole disciplines have been built around improving what you do with what you control.  MBA and Operations Research programs are both good examples of fields of study that focus mostly on improving decisions about how you use the resources under your control.  Indeed, focusing on the things you control is at the center of effectual reasoning, an exciting new take on entrepreneurship and innovation (for example, the entire crowdfunding/startup Quickstarter Project was built on the effectuation principles and are the reason it was as successful as it was).

On the other hand, another great thinker from the ancient world once wrote,
"If you know the enemy and know yourself, you need not fear the result of a hundred battles." Sun Tzu, The Art Of War
Sun Tzu went on to outline the exact impact of not thinking about things you don't control:  
"If you know yourself but not the enemy, for every victory gained you will also suffer a defeat." 
Things outside of your control are much more squishy than things under your control.  The data is often incomplete, and what is there is often unclear.  It is pretty normal for the info to be, as Clausewitz would say, "of doubtful character," and it is rarely structured in nice neat rows with data points helpfully organized with labelled columns.  Finally, in an adversarial environment at least, you have to assume that at least some of the info you do have is deceptive--that it has been put there intentionally by your enemy or competitor to put you off the track.

People frequently run from questions about things that are outside of their control.  The nature of the info available can often make these kinds of questions seem unresolvable, that no amount of thinking can lead to any greater clarity.

This is a mistake.  

Inevitably, in order to move forward with the things you do control, you have to come to some conclusions about the things you do not control.  A country's military looks very different if it expects the enemy to attack by sea vs. by land.  A company's marketing plan looks very different if it thinks its competitor will be first to market with a new type of product or if it will not.  Your negotiating strategy with a potential buyer of your house depends very much on whether you think the market in your area is hot or not.

The US military has a saying:  "Intelligence leads operations."  This is a shorthand way of driving home the point that your understanding of your environment, of what is happening around you, of the things outside of your control, determines what you do with the things under your control.  Whether you do this analysis in a structured, formal way or just go with your gut instinct, you always come to conclusions about your environment, about the things outside your control, before you act.  

Since you are going to do it anyway, wouldn't it be nice if there were some skills and tools you could learn to do it better?  It turns out that there are.  The last 20-30 years has seen an explosion in research about how to better understand the future for those things outside of our control.

More importantly, learning these skills and tools can probably help you understand things under your control better as well.  Things under your control often come with the same kinds of squishy data normally associated with things outside your control.  The opposite is much less likely to be true.  

Much of the rest of this series will focus on these tools and thinking skills, but first, we need to dig more deeply into the nature of the questions we ask about things outside our control and precisely why those questions are so difficult to answer.

(Next:  Why Are Questions About Things Outside Your Control So Difficult?)