The Only Winning Move: Interview with Peter Scoblic, Part 3

Dr. Peter Scoblic is a co-founder and principal of the strategic foresight consultancy Event Horizon Strategies. A former executive editor at The New Republic and Foreign Policy who has written on foresight for publications including the New York Times, The Washington Post, Science, and Harvard Business Review, Peter is also a senior fellow with the International Security Program at New America, and an instructor for the Professional Development Program at Harvard University. Previously, he was deputy staff director of the Senate Committee on Foreign Relations, where he worked on approval of the New START agreement and was the chief foreign policy speechwriter for Chairman John Kerry.

Peter joined me for a discussion about his career, ranging from post-Cold War nuclear arms policy to the relationship between policymaking and pop culture, plus the practical question of how and to what extent we can usefully predict the future. The interview will appear on this blog in three parts – you can read the first part here and the second here – but you can also read the interview in its entirety as a PDF download.

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Sometimes, Peter, I wonder if scenarios are about the future at all. Josh Polchar at the OECD compares them to instructional fables; Pierre Wack said you spend only a little time talking about the future once you’ve built the scenarios, and you then focus on the implications of the present. 

Scenarios use the future as a convenient fictional setting in which to craft stories that will shine light on our strategic blindspots, but in some ways they might as well be set in parallel worlds.

Scenarios are essentially the crafting of fake analogies, what Herman Kahn called “ersatz experience”, so that when we encounter the novel or unexpected, we have something to compare it to, instead of flailing about in the moment.

Fiction needn’t be set in the future to convey experiences and situations that we haven’t had – or cannot have. Some fiction challenges us to consider: how would we respond in the situation faced by these characters? What if I found myself in this story?

Scenarios aren’t simply their own bubble universe, belonging only to specialist practitioners. We’re all engaged in scenario-making at various points in our lives. 

The information architect Peter Morville, in his book Planning for Everything, talks about choosing between three job offers in three different towns: you imagine what the daily commute would be like, what it would be like to be in that office each day with those co-workers, what kind of work would occupy your time, where your kids would go to school, and so on. 

This is also proto-scenario-planning, as is Rafael Ramírez & Jerome Ravetz’s idea that when we buy a house, although it’s a major investment, the decision is also based as much on gut feeling, emotions, and a sense of the stories we can imagine ourselves living out there. Scenarios of home ownership influence the biggest financial decisions of our lives.

Sticking with this question of fiction, I know you’re a fan of Charles Stross. Even though his novels are set in a wildly different universe to our own, with cosmic horrors and weird science, they’re also very much about the travails of middle management and office life in today’s society.

Does that kind of reading also feed your work?

I started reading Stross’ work at a time when I was very much trying to escape reality. I picked up the first of his Laundry Files books, which feature spies trying to fend off Lovecraftian horrors, during a difficult period in my life, feeling pretty sure that nothing between its covers would speak to the things I was dealing with. Of course, as the series goes on, it became more and more evident that it was also speaking to issues that I had experienced, or that I was now studying. His work is like what if Lovecraft was a dissatisfied management consultant at McKinsey; funny because of the truth within its fantasy.

His work, and that of a number of other writers, have always challenged me to think more creatively and imaginatively. My natural mindset is a pretty linear, experienced-reality approach to things; it’s actually very difficult for me to conjure scenarios, and I’m in awe of writers like Stross and Jeff Vandermeer. I marvel at the wonders constructed in genre fiction, sentence by sentence; those writers are constant provocateurs encouraging me to think more differently.

It reminds me of Thomas Mann: “A writer is someone for whom writing is more difficult than it is for other people.” Something similar might be true of good scenario planners, who have to work assiduously at the construction of plausible futures.

I’ve never found writing easy, even though I’ve chosen to devote a substantial part of my career to it. I’m not someone who can simply crank out two thousand words a day, it’s not merely a matter of discipline for me. I envy these prolific novelists!

With reference to Vandermeer, the second book in his Annihilation series, especially, is very much just about the trials and tribulations of running a government agency that is dealing with a complex crisis

The juxtaposition of weird events and organisational thinking fascinates me, because it highlights the extent to which the greatest mystery is: how do we work with other people? How do we manage to organise ourselves collectively and effectively to achieve our goals in an ever-changing world, without completely descending into conflict and anarchy?

I remember looking over the city of Sydney once, with all the traffic racing along the freeways, and thinking: “Given how complex and screwed-up every human being is, how much we’ve all got going on individually, it’s amazing that the lights go on when you flick a switch and the food gets to the supermarkets on time, and really, that any of this holds together at all.”

I have a recurring thought, looking at a cityscape, and asking, “Given what I know about human society and the challenges of cooperation, and the foibles of our individual behaviour, how on earth are those buildings still standing?” And yet – we have cities.

This sense of wonder or what Keats called “negative capability” applies to strategic thinking, too. Even in probabilistic forecasting, there’s still an imaginative or aesthetic element at play, it’s never strictly quantitative. The forecaster looking at a situation in the present and the ways it might play out in the future has to decide which past events it’s analogous to, they have to adjust for uniqueness. There’s still an element of craftsmanship there.

John Keats

There’s an enormous overlap between forecasting and foresight, and one of the areas of common ground is this notion of “active open-mindedness”, the willingness to entertain alternative points of view.

Art, science, and craft come together in preparing a forecast, because there are not always obvious comparison classes to future events. How do you define the most useful comparison class, and then adjust it to a specific circumstance, with its particular instabilities? There’s also art in knowing when you stop; when you stop adding new information, when you stop adding strokes to your painting of the future. 

Good forecasters are, in some ways, just naturally better at determining where that point is. They extract the signal from the noise and then they’re judicious about when they stop adding new information to the mix, where some of us mere mortals have our sense of the future sent bouncing from one headline to the next; whatever we last read in the paper shapes our notion of what we think is about to happen.

Quality control can be challenging when a new method begins to spread. One of the innovations you and Phil Tetlock suggest is to use scenarios to generate “question clusters”, groups of testable hypotheses to which we can then apply predictive methods.

How do you make sure that forecasting, and your hybrid approach, stays at a gold standard?

There’s certainly a danger of people doing it badly – and even worse, doing it badly and believing they’ve done it well. You may be a horribly calibrated forecaster, but you think you get the method, and you don’t put in that long and rigorous ongoing work of ensuring that your forecasts are genuinely well calibrated.

The number of scenarios I’ve seen, sometimes from very prestigious and credible sources, where there are fundamental errors, reminds us that rigour and the capacity for self-critique is essential.

The same thing is true for question clusters. Many methods of looking at the future already incorporate signposts and indicators of emergence, weak or strong signals of change. There’s always a danger that you’re looking for the wrong thing, or attributing too much importance to something.

A historical study of US diplomatic cables sent by foreign service officers in the 70s shows that what was considered important at the time and what proved important in hindsight were often wildly different things. Some things were obvious – the Iranian revolution was obviously a big deal! – but in other areas, their sense of priority was quite adrift from how we see their time today.

With question clusters, that means ensuring that the testable hypotheses we derive from scenarios and group together aren’t just reinforcing our perceptions, that the questions aren’t correlated with each other so that we aren’t looking for the same thing in two different places. It also becomes important to frame the questions tightly, so that the process has rigour and we can agree on what a significant indicator of change is.

I was thinking about the advantages of this Tetlock-Scoblic hybrid approach, and then I found myself asking: what would it do to its predictive value if other players also started to employ the same approach? Would there be systemic effects, and would they strengthen or invalidate the competitive advantage people gained from using it?

That in turn got me wondering: did the Soviets use scenario planning during the Cold War? Or was that form of conversation another technological advantage held by the US? What does it do to the strategic playing field if others are also trying to use foresight and forecasting to understand your moves?

There’s enormous benefit to each side in a conflict like the Cold War doing scenarios. This is a testable hypothesis, not a sacred belief, but if you create scenarios around a competitor, rival, or antagonist, and they force you to consider multiple plausible outcomes, it reduces the risk of misperception. You don’t assume the other side is doing something for a single reason.

This brings us back to the question of the 1980s Cold War rivalry, which started off this conversation. The downing of the Korean airliner 007 by the Soviet Union in 1983 contributed to tensions that nearly triggered a nuclear conflict because the American assumption was that this was clearly an intentional act by the “evil empire” – how could it not be intentional? The preexisting mental model was reinforced, even though it was incorrect; a lot of factors played into the Soviet action, and their own perception of the US testing their defences played a role in their decision.

Let’s draw all the threads together, because 1983 was the year of the Able Archer exercise, right?

The airliner was shot down in September, Able Archer was in November, and Reagan had given his SDI “Star Wars” speech in March. I’m somewhat obsessed with that year, as so much happened in the run-up to Able Archer, it amazes me that we got through it without a major conflict breaking out.

Right, it was the year of Grenada as well. And the tensions permeated the culture. I remember in elementary school, my mother telling me that, where we lived in the UK, if they dropped a nuclear bomb on London, the blast wouldn’t kill us immediately but it would still blow our windows out. It wasn’t the Cuban-crisis era of duck-and-cover, but this was strange stuff to have in your head as a kid.

UK “Protect and Survive” information video intended for use in a nuclear war

These anxieties made their way into pop culture through so many different routes. One of the strange facts I discovered was that just before Able Archer started, the band Men at Work performed their song “It’s a Mistake”, about accidentally triggering nuclear war, on Saturday Night Live. It’s a sarcastic, goofy song; in the video, the war is triggered by a general stubbing his cigar out on the launch button instead of an ashtray. It’s both comic and completely serious.

It seems there’s no hard divide between the serious strategic stuff and pop culture. I’ve been wondering whether the work of the music historian George Lipsitz, who looks at artists like the Isley Brothers in terms of their historical context and the way even apparently trivial lyrics speak to the issues of their time, can also apply to the business of foresight.

In some ways, we talk about being on the lookout for weak signals of possible futures, which sometimes appear on the fringes. I wonder if artists are more attuned to the fringes, and through them things make their way into the culture which are indicative and diagnostic in some way. In hindsight we say, “Real life is stranger than fiction”, but maybe art was picking up on something before it became apparent to the rest of us. 

Frankie Goes To Hollywood’s “Two Tribes”, Ultravox’s “Dancing With Tears In My Eyes” (which admittedly deals with a reactor meltdown but is still about a three-minute warning to nuclear catastrophe), Nena’s “99 Luftballons”; there was a lot of this worry being rehearsed in the 80s. 

You think of an image like the general’s cigar stubbed into the launch button and it seems crass and satirical, but then in 1965’s The Bedford Incident, a fairly credible drama, a nuclear weapon is fired because a nervy sailor mishears his captain’s words.

Where’s the line between satire, foresight, and plausible depictions of catastrophe?

The tiny miscommunications and misperceptions that history’s largest decisions can turn on is quite remarkable. There’s certainly a place where what is true, what is funny because it’s true, and what is plausible enough to consider strategically, come together. 

Again I’m reminded of the description of Kahn as the nuclear strategist who could’ve been a stand-up comedian – who then appears, in caricature, incarnated by Peter Sellers in Dr. Strangelove. (And the War Room in that movie is so lovingly designed, such a techno-temple, you almost want to believe it’s real). 

Satire and scenarios both poke at our assumptions, undermining the stories we take for granted – and maybe helping to correct misperceptions.

Thinking of nuclear near-misses: Stanislav Petrov, the Russian officer who correctly realised that he was being given a false reading of a US nuclear attack was someone who proved able to overcome his assumptions. 

He’s been heralded as a man who saved the world, which he did because he was able to tell himself an alternate story on the basis of the information he was being given. He’d been trained that the signals he saw on the screen represented incoming missiles, but he was able to construct another story, which he found more plausible, and which proved to be correct: that the signals were an error, and the US was not attacking.

Sometimes it comes down to that personal level, the individual judgment call. You’ve been studying foresight for some time now, and you spoke earlier of how scenario work changed participants’ mental models of how time worked. 

Has doing this work affected your own consciousness of time, and your own decisionmaking?

We study the things that we don’t understand about our own lives. I’ve gone through stretches of my personal life where I’ve found it enormously difficult to think about the long-term future. Getting involved in foresight work has provided a constant nudge: “Okay, Peter, you can do better than this. You can think about the future, about the multiple futures, and the multiple explanations for the situations you find yourself in and how they will play out.”

Knowing that there are alternate paths that time may take, engaging in dialogue with imagined futures that change how you see and act in the present, hasn’t just aided my decision-making, but it’s changed the way that I see the world.

Find more from Peter Scoblic on Twitter or at the website of his strategic foresight consultancy Event Horizon Strategies.

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