It’s all too easy to avoid thinking the unthinkable when the unthinkables concerned are so unpalatable.
Nik Gowing, BBC Broadcaster and Visiting Professor at King’s College spoke with Philip Ideson as part of Procurious’ Even Bigger Ideas, a 5-part podcast series sponsored by State of Flux. You can access the series exclusively on Procurious.
Nik Gowing introduced Procurious to the concept of thinking the unthinkable at last year’s Big Ideas Summit. Unthinkables are critical events that are not being considered or prepared for by organisations or by our governments around the world.
From Brexit to the election of President Trump; from Putin’s invasion of Crimea to the upcoming European elections, unthinkables have been occurring frequently over the last few years.
Unthinkables such as these disrupt everything that we presume to be stable and constant, they create an unthinkable environment and, unfortunately, they’re not letting up in 2017.
Nik Gowing returned to Procurious this year to speak in our podcast series, Even Bigger Ideas, and to give us an update on the current state of affairs. Why is the world struggling to prepare for unthinkables and what can be done to change that?
The New Normal
In recent years we’ve endured one unthinkable after another and, more often than not, several at once. Nik firmly believes that this is to be the new normal. Leaders, whether they admit it or not, are worried about what’s coming next and what the future holds for their organisations.
“If organisations don’t handle or recognise [unthinkables] then it could lead to them going out of business very quickly. Consumers and customers feel alienated by what a lot of companies are doing; what a lot of governments are doing.
A lot of the next generation, the millennials, don’t like what they see in companies or governments and of course this means that they don’t want to go into those companies. Therefore, there’s a succession problem as well.
We haven’t seen anything yet with AI and the internet of things coming down the track. What many thought would be unthinkable in twenty years, will probably be unthinkable in twenty months.”
Why are we failing at thinking the unthinkable?
Executive leaders are often overwhelmed, under pressure and unable to think about unthinkables.
The latest Thinking The Unthinkable Report reveals nine conclusions as to why leaders have, so far, struggled to respond to unthinkables. Nine key words and conclusions were mentioned repeatedly by survey participants.
“One of [these conclusions] is denial, and another one is willful dissidence. There’s a hope that, ‘Well, this is only a blip. It isn’t going be like this indefinitely.’
Those who have made it to the top whether it be C-suite, CPOs or as chief risk officers are constrained in their way of thinking. As Nik points out “the conformity, which gets you the promotion and gets you to the top, in many ways, disqualifies you from understanding the enormity of the changes that are taking place.”
“In reality, leaders must use every kind of idea that’s out there; coming from inside the company, outside the company, in order to actually understand, appreciate, mitigate and confront head on the enormity of changes coming”
It’s Time to Start Thinking the Unpalatable
Nik asserts that unthinkable events are often apparent but we choose to ignore the available evidence because it is so unsavoury.
“Thinking the Unthinkable is the title, but actually it should be thinking the unpalatable. In almost every aspect, there is clear evidence out there [of what’s to come].”
“Before the migration crisis in Europe there was two years of warnings from the UN and the International Organisation of Migration. But companies, and certainly governments, did not want to listen to it or take notice.
“The unpalatable is this stuff that’s out there. Organisations say to themselves ‘Surely, that’s not going to affect us. Surely, it’s not going to be that bad. Surely, we can ignore it.’ And, actually, they should be saying, ‘We’ve got to embrace this.’ ”
What can be done?
“Chief risk officers and procurement officers have got to think far more broadly. There’s probably an unpalatable, small incident or issue out there that is going to turn into something much bigger. We are too often seeing the attitude of ‘We’ll rule that out. We don’t want to know about that.’ Instead, unpalatables should be right at the top of the risk registry. ”
“Events that were once viewed as outlandish unthinkables would not even been considered as likely in the risk registry. It’s a bit like dealing with alcoholics. No one wans to admit they’ve got an alcohol problem until they get in the same room with a lot of people suffering from the very same problem. At this point they’ll say ‘My goodness, that’s me. We’ve got to do something about it.’ ”
“So what we’re in the process of doing at the moment is creating a community of leaders in government and corporates around the world who’re saying we’ve now got to change the way we do business. It’s about changing culture, mindset, and behavior. It’s not about spending money. It’s changing what’s in the human software up there.”
Procurious Even Bigger Ideas is a 5-part podcast series available exclusively to Big Ideas Digital Delegates. Sponsored by State of Flux, this series features interviews with five of the most intriguing power players at this year’s Big Ideas Summit in London.