By Robert Hickson 25/01/2017

If you look beyond the current concerns of rising populist authoritarianism there is a greater threat. It’s what Nik Gowing and Chris Langdon in the UK have called the failure to “think the unthinkable”.

Based on interviews with a range of Chief Executives and other senior people in the public and private sector they highlight that current institutional structures and behaviours are not well set up to deal with the complexities and pace of change that we now face.

They note that it may be more accurate to label it a renewed call for “thinking the unpalatable”. This is because many of the “surprises” over the last decade that they cite – the global financial crisis, the rise of Daesh/ISIS, the annexation of Crimea by Russia, the rapid spread of Ebola and Zika viruses, and the Brexit vote (not to mention the Trump presidency) – were, or could have been, thought about based on early signs. But there was a failure for them to be considered more seriously.

They discount the myth that this is solely due to us living in unusual or rapidly changing times. There are certainly rapid transitions underway, and many of today’s leaders have had their careers in relatively stable times, so are not well prepared for a changed world. But groupthink, hierarchical decision-making processes, insularity, and concerns about careers or peer acceptance are often critical barriers too.

Both the public and private sector need to consciously encourage and pursue more provocative thinking. Not fantacism (or “alternative facts”), but an appetite to explore more on the “what if?” side based on current observations.

It is now not about who knows the most, but figuring out how to frame the problem, and what are the most important questions to ask.

That’s easy to say, but hard to implement. As Sir Humphrey Appleby pointed out decades ago “courageous” thinking or decision-making is often the kiss of death in organisations large and small, if there isn’t an appetite for, and support of it.


“We need new organisational and mental frameworks or paradigms within which to be able to practise the unthinkable and create a ‘new normal’” Tony Manwaring, Chartered Institute of Management Accountants (from “Thinking the unthinkable”).


There’s a lot of talk about these issues, but still a long way to go. Nik Gowing is critical of the narrowness of the recent discussions at the Davos World Economic Forum annual meeting. More lip service than a mindset change.


The Davos approach highlights a limitation that Gowing and Langdon’s report hardly touches on – broader participatory processes. It is not just about passing on more varied advice or insights to the senior leadership from largely the same old sources. Involving more people from outside the organization (and not just management consultants) in framing what the issues are, as well as ideas to address them is required for the complex issues.

Cat Tully picks up on this in the context of good foresight practice. So does Nesta in a recent report “Governing with collective intelligence”.

So to be better prepared for the future it’s not just about encouraging thinking about the unthinkable, and doing something with that. But also about thinking about how we think and who we need to think with.

In future posts I’ll look at some unpalatable thoughts for New Zealand.


Featured image: from the author.

0 Responses to “Thinking the unpalatable”

  • Dear Mr Hickson – the reason is ‘that’ and never ‘because’ – cheers