On too many fronts

Fighting on too many fronts


We certainly do not have thirty years to get our act together. As things stand, even within fifteen-to-twenty years the world economy will come under extreme threat from the globally-defined crises covered earlier. But that is a very short time to get ready. By then the international community must be far more resilient, and must have slowed those trends likely to cause the worst trouble – as well as removed whatever obstacles to a potential Global Renaissance that are possible. Moreover, it will get steadily harder to make a difference. As a result, the most influential industries and nations probably only have little more than ten years left to improve our odds significantly. That is because of a two-pronged argument: The global economy will not be able to withstand more that a small number of fundamentally-different crises at the same time, and there are more than that small number that are already likely to occur within the next fifteen years or so.

Dealing with the first element of the argument, it is remarkably easy for government and corporate decision-making to become catastrophically overloaded during times of crisis. It is a surprisingly consistent pattern. Indeed, across my confidential analyses of numerous top-level governance structures I have found that leadership teams tend to flounder when confronting more than just two fundamentally different crises at the same time. There are many contributing factors to this, but basically it comes down to the leaders not being able to hold sufficient detail in their heads at the same time. They resort to briefings that are necessarily only about a subset of what is going on. They put off issues that may in time turn out to have been crucial, but were never urgent enough to become a high priority. Anyway, their freedom of action tends to be significantly reduced by the immediate impact of the crises themselves. On top of that, the interconnections between problems and solutions and potential unintended consequences get missed, and then cause further problems later on.

I have been privileged to observe some of the most talented top-leadership teams in the world, often at times of great turmoil. Only the very best were truly able to handle two completely different major crises at the same time. From everything I have witnessed, managing more concurrent urgent crises than that – even with the best political, business and social leaders working in the best environments – is likely in practice to be impossible to sustain. Even at the moment, on those days when there are not any truly-urgent crises breaking, governments nevertheless have to cope with the aftermath of a world recession at the same time as related Sovereign-debt worries in parallel with revolutions in North Africa and the Middle East. Understandably, dealing with the failure to address climate-change has tended to drop in political priority from where it was just before the 2009 Copenhagen Climate-Change conference. However, imagine if the initial financial collapse and Arab rebellions had all occurred in the same month, along with a natural disaster such as the 2011 Japanese tsunami raising concerns over nuclear meltdown. Addressing climate-change would probably not have got any top-level attention at all.