This week Charlie shares his thoughts on Brexit and how to predict and prepare for the future.
This week has been a momentous week in the Brexit saga, the massive defeat of the government’s Brexit plan and the no confidence vote, leaves us in a position where there is absolutely no consensus on how to task Brexit, or move forward. No one knows what will happen next and how this will all end. The mantra repeated everywhere is “we live in uncertain times”. This week, I thought we would look at how we go about predicting the future and how an incident could play out. If we have a good idea of what will happen in the future, after an incident or crisis, then we can look at our proposed actions and communications and ask, will they contribute to achieving the outcome we want, or do we need to carry out a different set of actions to achieve our goal? So, after an event, how do we find out what is likely to happen and where or who can we get this information from?
First, we can ask people around us, such as our friends, colleagues or family, and see if they have any ideas. They may have an opinion but how do we know what this is based on. We also know that the person who tries the hardest to get their opinion heard is generally the person whose opinion you trust the least, and the person you don’t really want to listen to.
Alternatively, you can ask people whose job it is to try and predict the future. Polls and pollsters base their whole industry on trying to predict what will happen. They do this by asking people their intentions on how they will vote or behave. It seems that currently people’s views are more volatile, or they don’t tell the truth to pollsters. In the last four years in the UK, there have been three failures of the pollsters; they failed to predict the Labour surge in 2017, the Tory majority in 2015 and the Brexit vote in 2016. I sometimes look at the bookie’s odds, but they can also be wrong. Then there are the experts who give us a prediction mainly based upon getting the results of an election or referendum right lots of times in the past. I remember very vividly the day before the Brexit vote, driving round Lytham St Annes, listening to the radio and there was a very long-winded discussion about an expert who has always predicted elections right and he was saying that Brexit would be a narrow remainder victory and gave lots of reasons why that would happen. After the vote he joined the ranks of ‘experts’ whose luck ran out!
The newspapers always try and tell us what is significant and what will happen. I am a very keen reader of the Economist and they always have well researched articles, they will look at the trends to date and will put their neck out to predict what will happen in the future. They are often right but there are also spectacular failures, such as the failure to predict the Donald Trump win. As well as the newspaper's ability to incorrectly predict the future, is their ability to turn a very mundane story into something seemingly of world importance. CNN, which I will watch when I am in hotel rooms abroad, is the master of this. As they must fill their 24-hour news schedules with ‘breaking news’, they often have to turn a nothing story into major scoop. “DONALD TRUMP SHOELACES COME UNDONE” screams the tickertape, and then for the next 24 hours this major story is played out across all of their news programmes, interspersed with multiple banks of talking heads discussing the significance of Trump’s untied shoelaces by trying to say something interesting or original about the story. Once Trump goes, CNN will be even more desperate for someone to fill the gap and provide them with ‘breaking news’ headlines. It’s clear that we cannot always trust the media not to over hype stories, especially if we are not very aware of the story's significance.
You would think that the media would be reasonably informed, and we listen to them, as they often know more about the subject and the story than we do. A few years ago, when Rangers Football Club had financial issues and went into administration, I avidly followed the story and read everything I could get hold of on the story. I knew more than the journalists on the subject, but I quickly found myself reading articles which I knew were factually wrong or inaccurate regarding the significance of an event, or as to where that event would be leading. So yes, do read the papers to get the journalists’ predictions but always remember the old adage “don’t believe everything you read in the papers”.
We spend a reasonable amount of time at school and beyond, reading history and trying to be aware of and understand what has happened in the past. If we can understand the past, this can help us understand how we arrived at where we are and how events might play out in the future. Yes, this is true, but the problem is that there are lots of lessons to be learnt from the past but we ourselves and others, often deliberately or subconsciously choose lessons from the past that prove our point of view or a narrative we want to promote. History can have a part to play in predicting the future, but only if we choose the right lessons or events.
If we only want to trust our own thoughts and ignore those of the professional predictors, we can scenario plan. We can look at an event, such as Brexit, and in a fan-shaped diagram try to look at all the possibilities, and then the possibilities of the possibilities, to see if some define themes, directions, or if similar endpoints come out. As the incident progresses you can then look at the progress on your diagram and see if the incident seems to be heading down one particular path that you have identified. This could tell you the direction the incident will take and the likely endpoint.
So that brings us back to Brexit. I have been reading, listening and watching avidly everything on Brexit using all the channels above, except scenario planning, to see if there is anything which will tell me where this is all going, and I am none the wiser. So perhaps if all else fails and there is no clear path to where the incident is likely to go, all you can do is prepare for the worst case. I am now off to the shops to stockpile French and Italian wine.