The Ministry of the Predictable. Eliminating Uncertainty, Risk, and Resilience.

For every complex human problem, there is an answer that is simple, obvious and WRONG!* But it is the Standard Operating Procedure (SOP) of the Ministry of the Predictable (MOP).

The MOP work by; developing universal policies, providing conditional funding, linking funding to milestones in a project plan/programme and measuring your progress against the targets and KPIs. Because, in the MOP, all human life is predictable. Everything is ordered and can be understood and controlled through logical measures and incentives (pictures of MOP Operatives below).

This post was going to be a massive dig at the MOP, but I think I’ve made my point. Yes, they probably are the root cause of all the wrong stuff, inertia, wasted opportunities and general irritations in life. But individually it’s probably not their fault. They are just doing a job as part of the system… or are they?

But Life is; Simple/Obvious, Complicated, Complex and Chaotic. Life can be any of those things, and it can move dynamically between them. Bits of my own life have on occasions, moved from being obvious, simple and calm into chaos very quickly. Influenced by unpredictable events that happened ‘out of nowhere’. You see these sort of ‘fluctuations’ in organisations as well.

Predictability is mostly an illusion. The main purpose of this post is to get across the point that predictability only works where things are predictable. Treating complex human problems as ‘predictable’, controllable or even understandable is not a reality and probably dangerous. To misquote, ‘the simple, obvious answer is … WRONG’.

Here are two things to help us in this challenging space; two Medics talking about Statistical Fallacies and a Professor talking about Risk and Resilience. Go on… take the leap…

Joachim Sturmberg & Stefan Topolski. For every complex problem there is an answer that is clear, obvious and wrong. And other aphorisms about medical statistical fallacies. Journal of Evaluation in Clinical Practice, May 2014.

As the title suggest, this is about unpicking the mathematics and statistics commonly used in the world of Evidence Based Medicine. I’m very keen on using evidence to make decisions, but as Sturmberg and Topolski point out, there’s a lot more that we need to understand and recognise about the connections, patterns and deviations from (simple) predictions than just numbers. Human judgement is just as important as cold data. Something Matt Wyatt has written about here in ‘what is average’ and 43 quintillion ways to witness…

It’s also a great summary of all those pithy observations that contain a general truth (aphorisms) you’ll have heard about statistics. The aphorisms are also helpfully explained with a medical illustration – words, not those gruesome anatomy drawings (just to be clear). The paper also uses the Cynefin Framework to illustrate how different types of medical knowledge can be used as part of sense-making and decision making. Helpfully this links us to Dave Snowden, who developed the Cynefin Framework.

Source: Sturmberg & Toploski. For every complex problem, there is an answer that is clear, simple and wrong: And other aphorisms about medical statistical fallacies
May 2014 Journal of Evaluation in Clinical Practice 20(6)

Dave Snowden, Risk and Resilience. If you want something that’s a bit more accessible – I recommend this 10 minute video from Dave. It explains the difference between the world of predictability (where the Ministry of the Predictable live) and a more realistic view of life.

A world where things don’t fit neatly within a ‘normal’ distribution curve; a place where we need to prepare ourselves for the ‘unpredictable’. I very much like what Dave describes as the ‘logic of hunches’. Nobody ‘knows’ the answer to a complex problem, so you gather fragments and ‘hunches’ from as diverse a group as possible to make sense of what is ‘possible’ (rather than predicted).

The video was created in 2011, and in some ways its a prediction of where we are now. High Impact Low Probability (HILP) events actually becoming more plausible and more frequent. Something that needs to be reflected in corporate strategies and approaches. We need to focus on agility and resilience rather than reinforcing robustness.

I’m not sure the Ministry of the Predictable is set up to deal with with agility and resilience. For me, the desire for risk minimisation, standardisation, consistency and measurement (where it isn’t appropriate) actually work against resilience.

So, What’s the PONT?

  1. Life isn’t just, simple, complicated, complex or chaotic. It can be any one of those things at different times and it can move between them.
  2. Trying to apply simple and obvious and ‘one size fits all’ solutions to complex problems doesn’t work. And will probably end up doing more harm than good.
  3. Using numeric data to predict things, only works where things are predictable. That’s the specific part of the universe where the Ministry of the Predictable should remain.

Quote Source. For every complex human problem… The origin appears to be with H. L. Mencken, although it’s also been attributed to Mark Twain and Peter Drucker. Details here.

Ministry of the Predictable pictures. Mine. From when Cardiff hosted the City of the Unexpected event in 2016 to celebrate the birth of author Roald Dahl. I took part as a street performer, dressed as a bald witch. Yes I did – details here:

About WhatsthePONT

I'm from Old South Wales and I'm interested almost everything. Narrowing it down a bit: cooperatives, social enterprises, decent public services, complexity science, The Cynefin Framework, behavioural science and a sustainable future. In 2018/19 I completed a Winston Churchill Travelling Fellowship, looking at big cooperative enterprises and social businesses in NE Spain and the USA. You can find out more here:

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