TOP 100 REVIEWERon 18 February 2006
Previously, Schwartz wrote The Art of the Long View as well as The Long Boom (which he co-authored with Peter Leyden and Joel Hyatt) and When Good Companies Do Bad Things (which he co-authored with Blair Gibb). In this volume, he addresses many of the same issues as in his previous works. However, in my opinion, he examines them in much greater depth while addressing other issues suggested by questions such as these:
1. In an increasingly more turbulent environment, how to recognize and understand "the inevitable surprises that lie ahead of us, particularly in the next twenty-five years"? For example, how to know what is needed to be known and then obtain that knowledge?
2. Given those "inevitable surprises," which steps must be taken that would allow a company or organization to thrive? For example, how to overcome "two different types of natural [but fundamentally irresponsible] reaction": denial and defensiveness?
3. What to do when new complications reveal themselves? For example, how can an "early-warning system" identify them so that appropriate and effective responses can be made in a timely manner?
Schwartz's response to only one of these questions is worth far more than the cost of his book. As he explains in Chapter 1, "Underneath the specifics, between the lines on every page in this book, you will find a basic message about the future in general: The challenges facing civilization right now are immense -- arguably more difficult than they have been during the lifetime of any living person. At the same time, because of advances in knowledge and technology, the human race has never been so capable. And since most of our challenges are caused, at least partly, by our own activity, this expanded capability is a double-edged sword." In ways and to an extent which Schwartz carefully explains, these are (in Dickens' words) the best of times and the worst of times.
The material is carefully organized within nine chapters whose titles range from "Inevitable Surprises" to "Inevitable Strategies." Of special interest to me is what Schwartz has to say in Chapter 5, "The Thoroughly New World Order." Here is a representative portion of Schwartz's rigorous narrative: "In the words of Robert Kagan, Americans are from Mars and Europeans are from Venus. And then there is a third set of nations, increasingly chaotic and disorderly, in danger of being written off as marginal by the rest of the world. Their power, when they have it, is the power of terrorism. And if that is the only power available to them, they will use it more and more frequently." How prescient.
It is important to keep in mind when reading this book that Schwartz is not relying on a real or imagined crystal ball. He would be the first to insist that, at best, useful speculation identifies degrees of probability. This is especially true of efforts to reduce the number of what would otherwise be "inevitable surprises."
Here's a hypothetical example. (Mine, not Schwartz's.) Let's say that you learn that your next competitive environment will probably involve competition by teams. You cannot (as yet) identify the specific sport but you already know that, whatever it proves to be, members of the team must be in superb physical condition and possess certain qualities such as speed, agility, sufficient intelligence, hand-eye coordination, commitment to teamwork, etc. You should also know where to obtain, on short notice, the equipment needed. Also the correct sizes for various uniforms. Terms and conditions of appropriate behavior can be formulated. Nutrition can be controlled. You can also be alert for "signals" generated by your early-warning system. For example, at some point, you learn that the competition will be indoors. You then learn that height is irrelevant. That rules out basketball. You get the idea.
In all of three of his books that I have read, Schwartz helps his reader to (a) identify relevant probabilities, (b) ask the most important questions bount each, (c) know how and where to obtain the information needed, (d) complete contingency preparations, and (e) modify plans as new information becomes available.
Over the past 50 years, there have been so many examples of this in the business world. They include the pressurized cabin which was essential to airline travel and the rapid adoption of facsimile machines which substantially reduced the volume of overnight delivery of 1-5 page documentsas well as the Internet and WWW which enabled those online to communicate with others online (anywhere and any time), obtain information and complete commercial transactions almost instantaneously. As Schwartz explains so well, once relevant probabilities and heir implications have been identified, better decisions can be made and more effective actions can be taken.
Schwartz is generally optimistic that those who share the "thoroughly new world order" can overcome the chaos and turbulence to come if (a huge "if") they build and then maintain sensory and intelligence systems; cultivate a sense of timing; put in place mechanisms to engender what Joseph Stumper once characterized as "creative destruction"; avoid denial of the chaos and turbulence; "think like a commodity company" (see page 232); remain aware of the competence of judgment and the level of judgment that new situations require, then move deliberately and humbly into new situations that stretch that judgment; place a very, very high premium on learning, on environmental and ecological sustainability, and on financial infrastructure; and finally, cultivate "deep, candid" connections.
Schwartz does not assert that these values and strategies will guarantee the total elimination of all of the problems we have now nor the prevention of others in years to come. However, he has convinced me that these values and strategies can -- and will -- improve the prospects for human survival. I agree with him that "There is no recipe or playbook for doing this. There is only the ongoing knot of life to unravel. Perhaps the string that is easiest to pull first is the string in inevitable surprises."