History is Full of Unforeseen and Unintended Consequences. How to See Then Coming?
You Are Living in History Right Now
There may have been a time when such a statement as the one above might have sounded a bit too pompous or heavy handed to many of us. I bet not so much now. After two years of a global pandemic, a war in Europe that reeks of the dark past and threatens a new world war, and foundational challenges to our own democracy, we get it – history is alive and all around us. We make it, ride on it, get run over by it.
So much of what becomes history feels sudden and out of the blue. How did that happen? When did they start doing that? Why is this happening? But often it is not actually random or unpredictable. We simply failed to see the patterns shaping up or lining up to form new outcomes.
Enter the Kaleidoscope
I was taking a course recently dealing with US-China relations in which history, naturally, was a major component. How each country views our own and the others history shapes our perceptions and decisions. What we decide we see has genuine consequences.
A fellow participant in the course asked a question that I thought contained a brilliant metaphor that is relevant to how we see and use history. He observed that so often seemingly disconnected elements come together with powerful results. Has anyone, he asked, developed a kaleidoscope theory of history to help explain what happens? Sadly, the response was no. But what a clever way to approach the challenge
Even lacking a coherent theory, might we do better as citizens and as leaders if our mindset was to look for the kaleidoscope effect? If we thought all along to be on the alert for actions, personalities, and other factors at work in the world and ask ourselves how each of them we examine might lead to something powerful and unique if it combined with or bumped up against other seemingly unrelated factors also in play at the same time?
There is not much new in suggesting we look for hidden meanings and deeper connections, but I found the kaleidoscope image was another level of thought. A bit more like three-dimensional chess, in that it forces one to think well beyond just what is before you at the moment.
Case in Point
If you are like me, you have tended to think mostly about Putin’s war on Ukraine in terms of European and global security, with a good dose of Russian and regional history mixed in and humanitarian angst as well. All well and good, but not nearly enough.
Let’s look at some of the other pieces that are in motion because of this war and think about how they might affect still more dynamics:
- Many of us know that Ukraine has traditionally been Russia’s breadbasket. But how many knew that it was a major food exporter around the world, particularly in the Middle East. A lot of people are going to find food in short supply because of this war on the other side of the world from them.
- Ukraine manufactures essential parts for auto manufacturers in several countries. Assembly lines in several European countries are beginning to shut down. This in turn affects all the businesses that support those work forces. A lot of people are about to be unemployed who certainly did not see that coming.
- It turns out that one of the key components in much high tech manufacturing is neon gas. Guess who produces almost all the world supply of that gas? Russia and Ukraine. A lot of IT related production is getting ready to dry up.
And So It Goes
The types of things mentioned above are significant in and of themselves and they are remote enough from the central cause, the war, that many would not have seen it coming. But carry out the thinking a bit further. If food shortages get bad and prices go really high in some places, what might that do to domestic stability in those countries? Might governments be put at risk?
What about thousands of manufacturing workers suddenly being idled? The potential for downturns in local economies, encouragement of extremist politics, social unrest is significant and subject to spread once the spark is struck.
Note Who Pays Attention
All of the scenarios discussed here are reasonably foreseeable, but the question is who foresees them and what do they do with the knowledge gained. It is possible that Putin considered all these risks and others but decided to proceed anyway. He might have done so convinced this was his place in history to carry out the war.
Putin even more likely was so sure of early and complete success that he never picked up his mental kaleidoscope to see what pieces were out there beyond his immediate priorities. In the same way, he likely never thought through what if, as unlikely as it must have seemed to him at the time, the West actually united and began extracting a terrible price short of joining the war.
Leaders who fail to pick up the kaleidoscope put much at risk, all for a lack of self-discipline and imagination.
Grand Theory or Simple Tool?
I concluded, at least for now, that there likely is not ever going to be a kaleidoscope theory of history, no formulation that could foretell outcomes with great accuracy. But I also concluded that the basic concept of analysis and projection represented by the kaleidoscope is at hand ready to use right now. It simply requires leaders and analysists free enough of their own biases and experience or training to look for those seemingly disconnected pieces and patterns of movement, always asking “What if?”
Someone a lot smarter than me might come up with a kaleidoscope model that does the predictive work with great accuracy. In the meantime, I think I will continue turning the tube and glancing into the lens to see what wonders are hovering out there beyond the obvious.
I have a hunch the next couple of months are going to wear out all our kaleidoscopes.
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