Tuesday, 9 March 2010

Weather men know which way the wind blows

Eventually they got the message. The guys at the UK’s Meteorological Office have abandoned their futile attempts at long-range weather forecasting. They may have the most powerful computers in the world, but that didn’t help then when they forecast a barbecue summer for 2009, which turned out to be the third washout in a row, with the wettest July since 1914. A mild winter was then given a high probability, only for the UK to suffer its coldest winter for 30 years. After a storm of criticism, they withdrew hurt. But Edward Lorenz’s fabled butterflies flapping their wings in Brazil could have told them they were wasting their time anyway.

Forecasting has always been difficult, especially when it is about the future – as the joke runs. Human systems suffer from unpredictability too. But politicians are slow to learn. They still think that it is their job to predict outcomes. The public expects it. Target culture requires it. Their advisers think it is their job to help them with specific advice, for which they can later be blamed.

Take Iraq. There was little post-war planning. But there were some predictions, such as that the Iraqi public would be dancing in the streets and hugging their US liberators. Looting the museum wasn’t on the cards. More planning might have helped, provided it wasn’t taken too seriously. The problem is that when humans are involved, a myriad of events and twists and turns cannot be foretold. What matters is diverse capability and flexibility that can cope with the unpredicted when it happens. Plus resilience when faced with an unforgiving public who say ‘you should have planned for that’. Even more important is to be more cautious in deciding on elective wars of choice based on too-carelessly predicted success.

Managers have a different problem. Their claim to their positions in authority rests partly on a supposed ability to link cause and effect, to say that ‘if we do this, that will be the result we are looking for’. But unexpected events get in the way. Who would have predicted Toyota’s pickle. A car accident here and there and a perfect storm blows your finely crafted plans away.