Clem Sunter

Flag-watching – the foxy way

2014-09-08 09:19

Clem Sunter

In the last 30 years of helping people and organisations look at their futures, I have come to the following conclusions:

The changing game of life

The game of life and business is completely different to the game of sport where the rules are fairly fixed. There have been major changes in pay, format and fixtures in sport, but the game of rugby, cricket, tennis and golf is much like it was 50 years ago. In life and business, by contrast the game can change dramatically in a period of five to ten years and if you are unaware of the flags that are transforming your game – be they global, relating to the country you live in or the industry you work in, or those changing your personal circumstances – you will not perform up to your expectations or worse still life as you know it may cease to exist. The trick is therefore to spot the flags before other people do and act on them.

The blindness of success

The more successful you are as an individual or business, the more blind you are to the flags that are changing your game. It is as though the game has become a sacred cow because of the amount of time and resources you have put into it. Hungry people and entrepreneurs are much more prepared to adapt their strategy if they see the environment around them changing. Kodak invented the first digital camera in 1975; but they had so much money invested in the film camera business they allowed their competitors to exploit Kodak’s own invention. They did not foresee their invention as a game-changing flag.

Screening of information

We are assailed by billions of bytes of information every day from the internet, TV and radio, newspapers and the social media. The big challenge is to differentiate between pieces of information that can affect your prospects from information that may be entertaining but is totally irrelevant to your future. We have moved from the Age of Information where obtaining it could be a challenge to the Age of Intelligence where everyone has access to information and the challenge is to sift through it for the pieces that can directly or indirectly affect you. The latter are the flags you should be watching 24/7 to notice any shift in the environment which may require you to change your behaviour. Obviously if a flag is irrelevant to your future, you can ignore it.

The calibration of flags

Flags can be calibrated in terms of duration, geographical footprint, impact and the probability of different outcomes. For example, the ageing of the population in Japan and Europe is affecting both economies which are moving towards a steady state of minimal economic growth; the impact on the citizens living in those countries will be long-term and significant; and the probability is so high that the flag can be regarded as a rule of the game. On the other hand, the annexation of Crimea by Russia was not a trend – it was an event. It is a flag that at the moment has completely changed the prospects for Europe in both an economic and military sense. Its duration and impact are unknown as there are so many possible outcomes, ranging from peaceful settlement to cold war or hot war. However, it is a flag to be watched particularly if you live in Germany or the Baltic states.

First flags, then scenarios

Where flags have a range of outcomes, you can play best-case and worst-case scenarios around them. In other words, you do not play scenarios about your possible futures if you have not already identified the flags that are changing it. It is a waste of time. The flag may be the look in the eye of a person who is important to you at work and how it should be interpreted. Scenarios may help you maintain a good relationship with that person or walk away from him or her to another job. The flag may be a trend in your industry like the impact of the internet on newspaper circulation and advertising; convergence in the mobile device game where clients want to have all their applications on one device; or online shopping reducing foot traffic through the high street and malls. Then you have to play scenarios to explore your response so that you stay in business.

Subsidiary flags

Once you start playing scenarios around a specific flag, you have to look out for all the subsidiary flags that give you an idea of which path the future is taking. Like lights which progressively switch on at an airport at night to indicate which runway is in use, each event around a flag must be interpreted in terms of which scenario is in play. Often subsidiary flags contradict each other, like shelling and declared truces in Eastern Ukraine, in which case you have to attach a probability to each scenario – subjective not mathematical. You adjust these probabilities over time as the future around the flag unfolds.

New flags

Flags don’t necessarily last forever. Many pop up and flutter in the wind and then go down. You watch them when they are up and move on when they go down. New flags can come from nowhere to replace them and you have to switch your attention to monitor them. Think of the dramatic events in Iraq and Syria, the emergence of new players, the potential redrawing of national boundaries and the use of social media to bolster a cause. Nobody anticipated any of this before it happened. Now you have to weigh up potential outcomes, especially if you have interests or live in the countries affected by the flag.

The purpose of flags

My mentor Pierre Wack, who was probably the most eminent futurist of his day in the last century, once said to me that “it is much better to be vaguely right about the future rather than precisely wrong.” The purpose of the flags is not to capture exactly what happens but the idea of what may happen, as inside knowledge is required for precise details and timing of events. For example, in our letter to President Bush in The Mind of a Fox, published in June  2001, Chantell Ilbury and I said that his biggest threat was a massive terrorist strike on a Western city. The flags were the growing confrontation between the major religions of the world at the time and the two attacks on American embassies in Africa in 1998 (which we felt was a dress rehearsal for the real thing in the US). We could not possibly have predicted that it would happen three months after we wrote the book or that it would be in New York or that the method of destruction would be highjacked aircraft. Those kinds of things could only have come from inside information as a result of proper intelligence. Nevertheless, our flags could have prompted US security agencies to look more intensively at the evidence they had gathered, such as learning that a flying school in the vicinity was training two of the pilots who took part in 9/11 to take off but not land. Our flags might have made them re-interpret the clue for what it was – a genuine sign of things to come – and act on it.

The choice of flags

The choice of flags is a mixture of rational thinking, instinct and evidence of the senses. There is no magic formula to aid recognition other than the experience of flag-watching. Tipping points in trends and game-changing events can only be certified as 100%  correct in retrospect; so you cannot remove the risk completely of choosing misleading flags. Right now a poll ahead of the Scottish independence referendum indicates that the majority have switched to yes from no. We will only know the validity of that flag when the votes are counted.

Foxy flag-watchers

In retrospect Chantell Ilbury and I chose the perfect animal when we wrote The Mind of a Fox thirteen years ago. First, foxes have the brightest of eyes to detect the flags that are changing the environment around them  – be the flags part of nature or man-made. They know immediately whether they are important or irrelevant. They then have the speed and quality of response to pounce on any opportunity or counter any threat offered by the flags. It is their canny nature and agility that allows them to survive and prosper and protect their young. After all, they are small animals.

So, over the rest of 2014, I will be covering some of the flags identified in conversations with our international and local clients as well as like-minded futurists around the world. These have to be watched continuously by those affected by them, so that the latter can adapt their strategy and tactics to suit the new game as it is developing.

Send your comments to Clem


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