I want to place the question of life’s probabilities before you. I want to draw your attention to a set of plausible paths that the business or organisation you are part of can pursue. I want to pique your interest in the possibilities of the future.
For to the uninitiated perhaps these three words: probable, plausible and possible mean the same thing. That probable is just another word for possible, and that plausible is really that same as saying probable or possible.
But I put it to you that they are not.
Even though you could imagine Sherlock Holmes saying, “yes Watson, that is entirely probable”. Or an Agatha Christie detective stating equivocally, “mmm… plausible”. And I dare say that Patrick Jane, of “The Mentalist” fame would use the words “Its possible” when he reflects on a case with Lisbon.
In these three contexts, however, we are using these three words to look backwards. To look at a past action. To reflect on what has gone before. To look at a current situation to find clues for uncovering decisions that have been made.
But I’m more interested tonight in providing a reference point for decisions yet to be made. I’m interested in framing these three words probable, plausible and possible in terms of future actions. In terms of potential. In terms of what could be.
For example. Just imagine you have driven to the base of that mountain you are going to climb. As you are making your way from this starting point, you are faced with a set of choices for the length and difficulty of your work. Will you choose what is probable, plausible or possible?
Or here you are around the board table discussing business case options. Profiles of the various options are laid out, trends are discussed, and the future is mulled. The appetite toward risk is weighed, whilst the advantages and disadvantages of each of the outcomes are reflected upon. What is the final choice? Will what is probable, plausible or possible be selected?
What of the student part way through that undergraduate degree. Sitting at their desk in a moment of day-dream. Reclining with eyes closed, contemplating what could be. The choices before them, and the seemingly myriad consequences that are there for the grasping, even pursuing. Is this the probable, the plausible, or the possible?
You see, in the world of the futurist, of which I am a small part of. From the perspective of one who deals with strategic foresight, strategic thinking if you will, there is a difference between these three. There is a significant divergence between the probable, the plausible and the possible.
For these three are the major elements of the futures cone. The range of potential outcomes when looking at what could be. Handy descriptors of alternatives. This futures cone? It’s a cone on its side, with an apex on the left and its base to the right. It’s apex is at a point of time called now. Today if you will. And the base grows larger as the timeline moves further out ahead.
Through the centre of that cone, is a small diameter cone marked probable. The extent of the range of future states within this smaller cone are described as current trends. As those things that are likely to happen.
The mountain car park scenario describes this first cone. For it is probable that the group will take the easy path, rather than the difficult. Based on the group’s level of fitness, they are more than likely to choose the path of least resistance. Their range of potential experiences up that mountain are bounded by what is probable.
The second cone has a diameter which is broader than the first. This is cone is marked plausible. The extent of the range of future states with this larger cone are based on current knowledge. Those things which could happen.
The business case decision describes this cone marked plausible. For based on its current knowledge the board tries to see what could happen, and then make their decision accordingly.
But the final cone is the most exciting. It has the widest diameter. It is the one where perhaps dreams belong, visions if you will. It’s the breadth of potential that is not marked “likely to happen” in the case of the probable cone. Or “could happen” with the plausible spread of future states. Rather it’s the “might happen” cone. It’s the possible cone. Its what could be possible based on some future knowledge.
This range of futures, this breadth of possibilities. Well yes, it does apply to that day-dreaming undergraduate. But it also applies to those mountain climbers as they ask themselves – let’s take a different path, we’ll look forward to what might happen. And it applies to those decision makers. They can step back from their options analysis, and look deeper. They too can move from plausible to possible.
And so can you.
Three ranges of potential. Three breadths of scope for consideration. Three fields of view. Probable, plausible and possible. What is likely to happen, what could happen and what might happen.