First There Was The Word.
And The Word Was “Non-linear.”

“Futurist” is a word uttered with a sneer often as not … and deservedly so. But there are, as usual, exceptions …

Consider: Alvin Toffler. He and his wife Heidi have gotten so much so right before so many of us. Future Shock and The Third Wave, among others, pegged most of today’s conundrums and opportunities and snares 20 or more years ago. To the penny, more often than not.

Hence, what a great pleasure it was, exhausted though I was following a 22-hour journey from Boston, to see Mr T standing in the entryway to my hotel outside of São Paulo as I arrived. He was leaving, having finished his remarks to the top execs of Odebrecht, the Brazilian-headquartered multi-national.

Our conversation quickly veered to China, as it tends almost automatically to do these days when any two or more business folks collide. And he said something I fervently believe: “Who knows what will happen, but no historical trajectory is linear.”

As in: AMEN!!

China’s march since Deng’s endorsement of wealth creation roughly 25 years ago does indeed follow a remarkably smooth upward path. But if history is any guide, there will indeed be “outlier” events that confound the current process. We digressed to Nassim Nicholas Taleb’s “black swans” [The Black Swan], my favorite digression these days. Ever so much of where we are at a given time, personally or organizationally, is determined by the tiniest set of “black swans”—outlier events not imagined, or even imaginable, until they have become history.

So, “the word” for the day (any day! Every day!): non-linear.

Life is non-linear.
Progress, if indeed there be progress, is non-linear.

A very, very few black swans will break you—or make you. The “trick,” then, is to be more or less prepared for the unpreparable. E.g., Rudy Giuliani reacted well to a Black Swan of the highest-lowest order, 09/11, and his instinctive response to what cannot be prepared for may garner him the White House. At the very least, his response on 09/11 demonstrated how rapidly (hours!!) one can flip from “laughable nearly has-been” (lame-duck mayor booted out of Gracie Mansion by his cheated-on wife) to “king of the largest of hills.”

Thinking of yesterday’s blog post, “The right plan is to have no plan,” I recall Henry Mintzberg’s observation (The Rise and Fall of Strategic Planning, also mentioned yesterday): “Strategic plans work wonderfully … when you don’t need them, when tomorrow unfolds as a natural extension of today. They are useless, or even detrimental, when you do need them—in discontinuous times.”

To dismiss the myth of continuity and acknowledge the absolute ubiquity of non-linearity, black swans and the like—i.e., their centrality on the scorecard of your life’s record as parent, spouse, professional—means that you will never again look at the world the same way again.

Tom Peters posted this on August 2, 2007, in Strategies.
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