Monday, February 14, 2011

Our Reluctance to Recognize Tipping Points

“The past is the best predictor of the future” is one of humankind’s most reliable decision-making aids. It’s a highly useful heuristic, except when it collides with sudden changes in the status quo – what we popularly call tipping points and which can be biological, political, cultural, technological or emotional.

Today’s New York Times offers a compelling review of the two-year pan-Arab youth movement culminating in the 18-day revolution that unseated the 30-year reign of Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak. The revolution’s outcome was a tipping point that formal intelligence channels didn’t predict. “…[T]he American intelligence community and Israel’s intelligence services had estimated that the risk to President Mubarak was low – less than 20 percent ….” But according to the Times, President Obama interpreted the information differently and acted in accordance with his own analysis of events.

Nothing goes up forever, and nothing goes down forever. A straight, uninterrupted line in any direction will fail to predict the future. The simple fact that a condition continues and continues will eventually produce new events that lead to a new condition which produces new events that … you get it.

Which leaves intelligence workers with the usual questions: What are the cycles and patterns of change? When will the tipping points happen? How and where and when can we position ourselves to benefit most from events we can never completely control?

These are also some of the most compelling questions for decision makers.

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