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Do you have any idea what tomorrow might bring?

“Even after a month of demonstrations in Tunisia had brought about the downfall of President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali, on January 14th, some White House officials, along with American and Israeli intelligence experts, put the likelihood of a copycat revolution in Egypt at no more than twenty per cent. The hundred and twenty-five million dollars’ worth of algorithmic computer modelling that American military and intelligence agencies had ordered over the previous three years to forecast global political unrest didn’t seem to be of much help, either. “All of our models are bad, some are less bad than others,” Mark Abdollahian, who has been a consultant on power transitions for the U.S. government, told Wired.”

The New Yorker (14 March 2011)

OK, all those who DIDN’T see the massive political upheavals in the Arab world coming in early 2011, please raise your hand.

My hand is up. I hope yours is too.

What, you couldn’t predict the revolutions in Tunisia and Egypt, civil war in Libya, relentless agitation in Syria, Yemen and Bahrain, all over the space of a few months?

Don’t feel bad. As the excerpt from The New Yorker shows, even highly paid, highly skilled, highly equipped American and Israeli intelligence experts couldn’t predict it either. They put the chances of an overthrow of Hosni Mubarak in Egypt, even a month AFTER the departure of Ben Ali in Tunisia and daily demonstrations in Tahrir Square, at only 20 per cent.

In other words, even after you and I, ordinary layperson onlookers, became convinced that a copycat revolution was going to happen in Egypt, the real experts were voting 4 to 1 against.

Here’s another question: after the terrible events of 9/11 in 2001, and the intense ‘war on terror’ launched by George Bush and the bombing and invasion of Afghanistan, how many of you could have predicted that Osama bin Laden would not be killed or captured for another 10 years? That he would finally be eliminated on the orders of a black man called Obama? And that we would see it on something called Al-Jazeera – on our mobile phones?

If you can raise your hand to that one, you are indeed a prophet and you should be making a lot more money than you are.

More recently: when the Apple iPad was launched last year, how many of you thought you were witnessing the future of widespread computing? Did you perhaps agree with Bloomberg, who judged it “nothing more than a luxury bauble that will appeal to a few gadget freaks”? Or with Businessweek, who pronounced sagely that “consumers seem genuinely baffled by why they might need it?” That ‘bauble’, we now know, created a whole new category and has sold 25 million units in just 14 months.

I hope you’re getting the point. If the best-paid, dedicated experts can’t get a grip on these things, we ordinary Joes and Janes don’t have much hope. But that’s OK. Everyone is winging it; no one can handle the relentless pace of change in the world today. You don’t have to be able to predict anything any more. No one can.

You do, however, have to be able to ANTICIPATE. To watch events, and imagine outcomes. To construct a range of possible scenarios and devise potential responses. You don’t have to get it right, but you do have to be ready for anything. You have no clue what bat will fly out of hell to bite your business tomorrow. But you had better be prepared to take it on. Building resilience is the key.

Fortunately, the way to deal with the unexpected has not changed. All you need is a dedicated focus on fundamentals: your employees and your customers. It’s still about people, always will be. Get that right and few events can unseat you.

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