Hybrid Challenges and New Mental Models

Bryan Dorn
Bryan is an Executive Advisor on various investment boards. As a Treasury accredited Gateway Reviewer and better business case practitioner, Bryan’s portfolio includes infrastructure and national security investments. Bryan has written previous pieces on systems thinking and irregular strategies for SAGE International Australia

Every generation has thought their era as the most complex, that problems are ‘wicked’, intractable and too interwoven for analysis and dissection. There is no denying the modern era as never seen such an accumulation of trends all manifesting their effects near simultaneously.

Mega trends in and of themselves are not daunting. It is when multiple trends manifest and the effects feed off each other creating untold pressures and thereby complicating tactical situations that need to be contained, controlled and acted upon. The world is undoubtedly entering a period of extreme strategic complexity whereby environmental degradation on its own is creating new challenges and pressures. Add to this mix the evolving nature of the global power struggle, the shifting of power and influence from the United States to the People’s Republic of China, and the world is experiencing a hydra-like strategic dilemma. Shifting power equations are nothing new, however, when complemented by other strategic pressures, they may create effects unknown in our historical experience. Add to this complexity the degradation of fundamental principles of human rights, access to clean water, food, and other basic necessities of life, and the failure of the state system to protect and provide such amenities, the legitimacy of the state starts to being called into question. It is somewhat sadly ironic that whilst the world has never been so technologically advanced as it is at present, nor has it be so ravaged by such basic challenges as in the right to live a respectable life. The division between those who have access to these basic necessities is laid bare for the world to see via unprecedented media coverage and social networking. Current mega trends would indicate this strategic dilemma will only accentuate in severity.

Faced with this complex environment, the need to think, and think holistically has never been greater. Systems thinking has been proposed as a means to view events as an inter-acting system. While conceptually sound, decision-making always has been a system, and the master strategists throughout time always viewed events as such, hence their almost innate ability to pre-empt developments. In an era when mega trends are feeding off each other and events frequently surprise even the most skilled strategists, more is required of our policy makers and leaders to think strategically, holistically and prepare contingency plans not only for the immediate effect of their decisions but to also explore 2ndand 3rdorder implications. Organisations need to explore the conventionally implausible, test assumptions, and untangle cognitive biases. Herein, the principles from red teaming and string of pearls techniques[1]hold promise. Red teaming needs to be viewed as serious contender to test policy setting and organisational strategies, most likely provided by an external and independent party, to provide the intellectual purity of independent thought. Scenario planning and war-gaming, for both security and the broader private sector, are considered one off activities, but need to be engrained into the annual planning cycle and portfolio investment decision-making whether that be for military acquisitions, infrastructure or other sectors. Assurance measures need to be planned into significant capital builds and equally relevant for organisational strategies is to test business assumptions. Assurance and critical review needs to be provided by independent parties to again provide the freedom to challenge. The Treasury ‘Gateway process’[2]is as powerful in this enterprise and provides an avenue to bring in internationally-accredited and independent reviewers for critical high risk endeavours. This concept is equally applicable to investments as it is for strategies, portfolio prioritisation and organisational designs.

Doing more of the same, but supposedly with better processes, will not suffice. The issue is not the process, but the thinking and willingness to explore implausible ideas.

While most risk mitigation plans may well be irrelevant, it is the art of thinking and preparing that is invaluable.

The speed and intensity with which mega trends are manifesting and inciting secondary effects is truly startling. Now as the world must become more sophisticated in its thinking it is also being strategically challenged on an unprecedented scale. The slow burn of tension that existed since the end of the Cold War has given wave to a dramatic increase of pressure that the international system is groaning under the pressure to mitigate and control. Our institutions, held resolute since the end of the Second World War, may not survive going forward if our policy preference is to defer hard choices and failure to embrace new models for complex challenges.

[1]A comprehensive system for mapping out the assumptions, dependencies, and second- and third-order consequences of proposed strategy”. Red Team Thinking

[2]“If you are implementing a high risk proposal that is subject to the Gateway Review Process, a series of short, intensive reviews will be conducted at critical points across a proposal’s implementation lifecycle (normally over several years). The purpose is to provide the Senior Responsible Officer with independent assurance and advice to improve the delivery and implementation of your policies, programmes, projects, and services, as well as providing an early identification of areas requiring corrective action.” Australian Government, Department of Finance


Views expressed in this article are not necessarily those of
SAGE International Australia


Become a member

Come under our wings and become a member for free.

Sign Up Now

Get email updates from Sage