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The ability to anticipate and adapt to change is not only an advantage over the competition, but also a necessity to ensure long-term sustainable development. There are events that are impossible to ignore, such as megatrends, and others that are more difficult to predict due to their low probability or variable nature, so identifying and understanding them is becoming increasingly important.

In the practice of strategic foresight and the generation of possible future scenarios, these events are defined as wildcards. These are events that, despite having a low probability of occurrence, have a significant impact and can drastically alter the business landscape and society in general. Wildcard analysis consists of identifying these events and assessing their potential consequences.

Key features of wildcards

Wildcards can arise from a plurality of interconnected variables and constitute turning points in the evolution of a trend or system. Their nature can be physical, in the case of natural disasters or pandemics, or social, such as political revolutions or disruptive technological breakthroughs. Classic examples of wildcards are pandemics and financial crises, as they are known and potentially imminent threats. Although we may not know when they will occur, we know that their implications are massive and unpredictable. Examples of wildcards include disasters such as the Chernobyl nuclear accident, the 9/11 terrorist attacks, the 2008 financial crisis and the Covid-19 pandemic.

These events have a direct impact on the human condition, with broad and sometimes fundamental implications. The effects of a wildcard from the future need not be immediate; they may be gradual, but with irreversible consequences. Generally, these events do not usually show obvious effects until a certain threshold is reached, which makes them even more unpredictable. Often, the event that is identified as a wildcard is simply the straw that breaks the camel’s back; it is the result of certain stresses that have built up over time. For example, climate change induced by rising carbon dioxide emissions is a wildcard of the future that emerges slowly, but with devastating long-term consequences.

Types of wildcards

Within the practice of strategic foresight, different types of future wildcards have been identified, each with its own distinctive characteristics:

  • Black Swan: This term was popularized by Nassim Nicholas Taleb in his 2001 book Fooled By Randomness and later expanded in his 2007 book The Black Swan. It refers to highly improbable and unforeseen events that have a massive impact. Examples include the Covid-19 pandemic and the fall of the Berlin Wall.
  • Black Elephant: refers to events that are highly probable but that society rejects and chooses to regard as unlikely until they occur, despite their clear warning signs. An example might be climate change and its consequences.
  • Black Jellyfish: represents known and normal risks that escalate out of control due to positive feedback. An example could be the sudden collapse of a major financial institution.
  • White Leopard: This term refers to hidden or camouflaged risks that can have large impacts. Cybersecurity could represent a threat that often goes unnoticed until it causes significant damage. Another example of white leopard could be acts of terrorism.
  • Grey Rhino: This term refers to obvious events that are being ignored. Examples would be the growing public debt that threatens the economic stability of many countries, or economic inequality between rich and poor that generates social and political tensions.

Other examples of possible future scenarios that would be considered wildcards would be a breakthrough in fusion energy, a global hyperinflation, or a dramatic evolution of superhuman AI.

Managing future wildcards

Effective management of future wildcards requires taking a proactive, flexible and, above all, anticipatory approach. These unpredictable and potentially damaging events can arise at any time; therefore, waiting for more information or obvious consequences in our environment to finally react can be as costly as making the wrong decision in response to a dangerous event.

The lack of a forward-looking strategy that encompasses possible scenarios can result in a greater likelihood of taking the wrong action or even no action at all. Under pressure, a wrong response can further increase the damage caused by the original wildcards. Companies can use the scenarios offered by potential wildcards to test the soundness of their strategies so that they can implement corrective actions.

Similarly, if a company fails to adapt quickly and effectively to the wild cards of the future, it runs the risk of facing a series of long-term problems that require greater commitment and effort compared to preventive and anticipatory measures in the short term. Therefore, complementary actions and strategies, as well as flexible and comprehensive contingency plans, are needed to address both current challenges and future uncertainty.

In Benjamin Gilad’s book “Business Blindspots”, a three-step model for identifying an organization’s blind spots is developed.

  1. Starting with Michael Porter’s five forces theory, companies should conduct an analysis of the industry structure, starting with historical and current data, and extending this prior analysis with the identification of possible trends that may profoundly affect the balance between the five forces.
  2. The second step extends the view of the company to an external perspective, gathering competitive information from the assumptions of the company’s top management about the industry structure. Available sources such as interviews, conferences and annual reports should be considered at this stage.
  3. Finally, the results of the second stage will be compared with the analysis of the first stage. If any contradiction between the two is detected, this would be a possible blind spot.

In a period of exponential change and tight time budgets, with a volatile geopolitical situation and rapid technological advances, disciplines such as future foresight become increasingly relevant.

In this context, wildcards analysis is necessary for the development of possible future scenarios and appropriate contingency plans. A comprehensive management of wildcards seeks to optimize the management of resources and the development of strategies for the long-term survival and success of companies.

Understanding the nature of these events and how they relate to other forward-looking methodologies will increase the likelihood of avoiding or mitigating some of the more significant negative events.

 

References:

  • Copenhagen Institute of Future Studies – Using the future 
  • Nassim Nicholas TalebFooled By Randomness and The Black Swan. 
  • Benjamin Gilad – Business Blindspots.