Uncharted: How to Navigate the Future by Margaret Heffernan – Here are my six lessons and takeaways

UnchartedThe future is uncharted because we aren’t there yet.
We have moved from a complicated world to a complex one.
In an age of uncertainty and change, being able to sense what to do in advance of reliable prediction can make businesses or nonprofits smarter, more inventive, and more relevant.
The best way to navigate uncharted territory is to have an energetic, future-facing and long-term ambition in mind. 
Absolutely accurate forecasting is feasible, but only where everything is known and predetermined—and nowhere is that true. 
We have a huge capacity for invention — if we use it. We have limitless talent for questions and exploration — if we develop it. We can imagine what we’ve never seen before — if we practice. Lose those gifts and we are adrift. Hone and develop them and we can make any future we choose.
Margaret Heffernan, Uncharted: How to Navigate the Future


We don’t know what’s coming next.
We really don’t.
We think we can know.
We can’t.
We think we’ve gotten really good at predicting the next next.
We haven’t.
So…we’ve got to be prepared for…the next…unexpected…next.

In other words, the future is…uncharted!

I presented my synopsis of the new Margaret Heffernan book, Uncharted: How to Navigate the Future, at the November First Friday Book Synopsis.

We are in the middle of a pandemic.  We are in the middle of a surge in this pandemic. And, we had some (OK, we still have some) uncertainty over an election.

If life were simple, or even just complicated, but easily “plannable,” things would be different.

But life is complex, and nothing is all that easily planned.  Things are almost unplannable.  And we need some guidance for at least surviving such uncharted waters.

This book helps.

Margaret Heffernan

Margaret Heffernan

And let me mention that I feel unsettled; personally. Very unsettled.

And let me mention also that I am a serious Margaret Heffernan fan. One of her earlier books, Willful Blindness, has had a true lingering impact on my thinking. I think this book may also. 

Uncharted seems to be the book we need right about now.

I always ask, in my synopses, What is the point of the book?  Here’s my response for this book:  The future is unknown. It is not predictable. It is complex. It is uncharted. How do people, and organizations, prepare for an uncharted future?  This books provides an approach.

And I ask Why is this book worth our time? Here my three answers for this book:

#1 – This book is a stark reminder that the future cannot be known.  It is not predictable.
#2 – This book is a narrative of efforts to shape, or at least navigate, a future when the future was unknown.
#3 – This book is a call to collaboration, creativity, and radical diversity and inclusiveness as we seek to navigate the future.

I include a number of Quotes and Excerpts from the book – the “best of” my highlighted Passages.  Here are the best of the best that I included in my synopsis handout:

• Apps train us to expect accuracy in plotting routes, choosing hotels, restaurants, and lovers with levels of confidence our ancestors never imagined. We have come to expect the future to be minutely and perfectly predictable.
• The predictability of life, on which we’ve come to depend, seems to fall away and we’re left angry, intolerant, fearful.
• Our expectations are wrong. The future isn’t perfectly knowable and never has been. 
• Optimists aren’t idiots. They do better in life—live longer, healthier, more successful lives—for the simple reason that they don’t ignore problems or give up easily. 
• Human discomfort with uncertainty, together with a craving for reassurance, has fueled an industry that enriches itself by terrorizing us with uncertainty and taunting us with certainty.   
• The aim of propaganda is to disarm critical, independent thinking. 
• That the past is a very poor predictor of the future is not true only of financial markets. It is a source of hope and redemption for anyone with a poor start in life.   
• The Austrian philosopher Karl Popper argued that the fundamental driver of all human history is the growth of knowledge.
• Which history do we attend to: The history of institutions or of protest? Of the powerful or the powerless? …The question is more than academic; predicting outbreaks of violence could save lives. 
• History wasn’t about manifest destinies but unexpected and unforeseen futures.  
• Experience changes us; flukes, imagination, and accidents change us. 
• Only organizations or individuals that are implicitly authoritarian would arrogate to themselves the right to tell people who they are and what they might become.   
• Just as the moment of the birth of the financial forecasting business depended on the simultaneous advent of trains, the telegraph, and statistics, periods of breakthrough require that knowledge, technology, resources, and human ingenuity align.  But other breakthroughs, like the discovery of penicillin or of cosmic microwave background radiation, exist at the opposite end of the spectrum: big, important discoveries that are flukes, neither predicted nor predictable. …they aren’t planned; they emerge and are understood only retrospectively. 
• …a big serious error. It meant that after 9/ 11, they had no Arab speakers. …No single, efficient process, profile, or narrative will prove robust enough for an environment characterized by change.
• “The problem dated back to the Second World War. Some families had backed the Germans because they were anticommunist and other families had backed the Russians because they were antifascist. That was all still in the room.”  
• There are no rules that always work and no rules that are never broken.
• Allowing people at work to think like artists takes more than colorful walls, toys, murals, and open spaces.
• Many companies try to make the unpredictable process of invention predictable, the complexity of imagination simple. But both require mind wandering, time, space, agency. 
• It has been fashionable in recent years to talk of the need to adopt a purpose: something akin to a guiding ambition, which defines what an organization does and stands for. …The speed with which the word “purpose” has been adopted speaks volumes about just how purposeless much work feels now.
• When 181 business leaders, representing 30 percent of the U.S. market’s capitalization, signed a statement asserting that the purpose of all companies was to “promote an economy that serves all Americans,” many applauded a broader and longer-term vision for business. …A deliberate departure from Milton Friedman’s belief that companies serve shareholders alone… …Harvard business academics rushed to demonstrate that serving a broader purpose was great for growth and profits, too; shareholders could have their cake and eat it.

Here are a few of the points and principles I included in my synopsis from throughout the book:

  • The old way:
  • The entire construct of management—forecast, plan, execute—hinges on our capacity to make well-informed estimates. The more we practiced it, the more accurate we became.
  • We live in a new world: a “complex” world. Not the old world, which was “complicated.”
  • Complicated environments are linear, follow rules, and are predictable; like an assembly line, they can be planned, managed, repeated, and controlled. They’re maximized by routine and efficiency. But the advent of globalization, coupled with pervasive communications, has made much of life complex: nonlinear and fluid, where very small effects may produce disproportionate impacts. — What this shift means is that, while we can still be generally certain about many things, much remains specifically ambiguous.
  • what we know about complex systems is that, while aspects of them may repeat, they are inherently unpredictable.
  • everything is connected! — A practical, political understanding that “everything has a consequence for everything else” can, she believes, lead to better integrated policy-making.
  • Some tools to use:
  • experiments –
  • However much we might adore the legends of heroic soloists overcoming daunting odds, the risk is that trying to do everything yourself limits what can be achieved. Experiments can make a bigger difference when they connect a variety of influences, players, and perspectives.
  • scenarios
  • thinking
  • acting
  • collaborating
  • Choose to be an optimist:
  • Where pessimists may avoid problems, optimists cope and solve.
  • Loosen up…
  • so the danger in making science efficient is the risk of inhibiting innovation, marginalizing underrepresented ideas, and discouraging new and multidisciplinary fields.
  • It’s a dangerous myth that if you plan enough, if you’re efficient enough, you’ll always get it right.”
  • “I made the decision to open up our senior management meetings to anyone who wanted to sit in…”
  • three Mexicos
  • The scenarios had been whittled down to three: A Hostile Mexico, A Paralyzed Mexico, and A Responsible Mexico.
  • Think like an artist; (observe; reflect; ponder…):
  • This mind-wandering is free of an agenda, with no promise of reward, but, consciously or unconsciously, artists are incapable of not doing it.
  • Each time I talk to chief executives or boards or senior leadership teams about less management and more freedom, they understand the opportunity but cling to the ancient reassurance of scientific management.
  • Because everything about the environment, from the badge to the bonus, KPIs, assignments, and deadlines, speaks to the corporate need to stop minds from wandering, to streamline periods of reflection, to predict outcomes before projects begin.
  • The brilliant simplicity of Preparation (not predicting, or planning)…
  • because… epidemics come without warning
  • That means relationships have to be carefully nurtured and negotiated before an outbreak—or, as Hatchett puts it, “Don’t exchange business cards in a crisis.”
  • in 2018, there were outbreaks of six out of the eight diseases designated “priority” by the World Health Organization: Ebola, MERS, Zika, Nipah virus, Lassa fever, and RIFT Valley fever.
  • some general observations…
  • you really can’t predict; so don’t kid yourself…
  • long-term relationships, which build trust, really matter…
  • Matthews is right; longevity does count, because teams grow stronger over time, more loyal to one another, more open, more trustworthy, and more robust. …But going into a crisis with high levels of trust and solidarity provides an advantage that can’t be manufactured in the moment.

My six lessons and takeaways:
I always conclude my synopses with my lessons and takeaways.  Here are my six for this book: 

#1 – We are not ready for the coming future. We think we are. We are not.
#2 – The people who will help us get ready for the coming future are probably not in our immediate circle.  Widen your circle.
#3 – Widen your circle(s) now; and keep widening it, before the next challenge arrives.
#4 – We simply must get better at observing; widely — and pondering what we observe.
#5 – Be on the lookout for the good flukes.
#6 – Once the next challenge arrives, again don’t kid yourself. There will be a next one; and another one; and many other ones…

Here’s the bad news. This pandemic; this election; this crisis and challenge will not be the last we ever face.  There will be others. Maybe soon. Maybe worse. We have got to become good at being prepared for that next new next. This book can help.


My synopsis of this excellent Heffernan book is available

My synopsis of this excellent Heffernan book is available; click on cover image to order synopsis

My synopsis will be available soon.  Each synopsis comes with my comprehensive, multi-page synopsis handout, along with the audio recording of my presentation.  Click here for our newest additions.


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