Thinking about uncertainty

There are known knowns. These are things we know that we know. There are known unknowns. That is to say, there are things that we now know we don’t know. But there are also unknown unknowns. These are things we do not know we don’t know. (Donald Rumsfeld)

Yesterday I had the pleasure to chair the &Co CEO symposium  We had two great keynotes: Mark Robinson on adaptive resilience and Graham Leicester on work IFF has done on economies of money and meaning with Watershed - both publications are well worth a read.

What struck me most strongly during the subsequent discussions was how difficult it is for organisations to plan in times of such uncertainty, times when the past is no longer a good guide to the future.  One good tool for getting our collective heads around uncertainty is scenario planning; this does NOT mean modelling different levels of cuts (that is more akin to sensitivity analysis) but rather imagining a number of future worlds, and then planning your response to that alternative world.  The technique I like best is the one which plots two spectra against each other in a matrix - producing 4 possible future worlds.  See and thanks to Dawn Langley (Alchemy Research & Consultancy) for sharing, as always.

The 2 spectra I would choose are both focussed on the external world and beyond the control of individual organisations (hence the uncertainty):


  • impact of public sector cuts on the economy and audiences - recession => recovery
  • response of the arts sector as a whole - internecine warfare and every organisation for itself => new era of collaboration and joint working



The matrix above is my picture of the results 4 worlds.

I would not include the cuts themselves, they are here and more are coming, all that is uncertain is quantum (substantial by any standards); what is uncertain is how they change the landscape we all live in.

Hope this is helpful and thanks for reading