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Assessing the Possibilities

As a thinker about the future there are several questions that belong in your tool kit. The first involves how to generate ideas about possible futures. Don’t be afraid to ask about the potential for an event to occur or a situation to arise. What is the potential for the population to increase, traffic congestion to grow, immunization rates to fall, or economic development activity to decline by 20 percent? A strategic thinker is constantly looking for trends that will offer some indication that a change will occur – or not occur.

The clarity and simplicity of strategic planning, along with support from employees and stakeholders will depend to a great extent on viable data that illuminates various possibilities. These can be either beneficial or detrimental to the organization, state or community. The key question is, ‘What does the data tell us about the potential that an event might or might not occur?’ Remember it is just as important to consider the potential of a desired event not occurring as to consider the potential of a negative event or situation occurring.

Public leaders and managers must be not only willing but interested in and committed to scanning the horizon for positive and negative possibilities that will impact the community. When working with public administrators and elected officials I look for or attempt to produce several characteristics that are important to possibility assessment.

  1. A natural curiosity about the broader world and a natural worldview.
  2. Leaders and managers who are well read and in touch with current events.
  3. Courage to pose difficult questions about where the agency, community or government is going.
  4. An appreciation for the past but a focus on the future.
  5. Interest in the ideas and suggestions of others…open to new concepts and possibilities.
  6. Willingness to actually try something new…and to change direction.
  7. An interest in and appreciation for data and data analysis; the courage to ask ‘What does this mean?’
  8. An understanding that there are some things that are not predictable but there are many things about future events that are predictable.

For those contemplating who to promote or appoint to a strategic position, I recommend these (and other) characteristics. Possibility is related to vision wherein one might ask, ‘What are the possibilities for this state, community, or organization to achieve greatness?’  In addition to exploring bold, encompassing visions, strategic thinkers must also ask ‘What is the possibility that X might occur and how do we prepare for that eventuality?’


Traditional forecasting using mathematical models takes public managers in the wrong direction and creates frustrations that reduce willingness to participate in planning. In my view, it is better to use geology, material science, demographics and a variety of If-Then scenarios based on both empirical evidence AND knowledge/ intuition about the subject. Let’s take material science as one example.

Asphalt road surfaces are made from composite material engineered to bear huge vehicle loads, withstand extremes of heat and cold, hold painted reflective material, and endure rugged use for long periods with little maintenance. Material scientists specializing in road surfaces have calibrated, through years of testing and experimentation, a formula that will work in virtually any condition on the planet. Public works and transportation professionals, mostly civil engineers and highly trained road surface and materials technicians, are well schooled in these formulas and can calibrate them to state, city and county needs. They don’t need complicated probability calculations to determine how long road surfaces will last if they know traffic and weather patterns, and track other variables as they occur. From experience, they also know proper maintenance schedules and how to maintain road surfaces to maximize longevity and durability.

Here’s the point…public leaders and administrators must be able to predict potential outcomes in order to effectively forecast maintenance, operating budgets, and other unintended events that may or may not occur. With proper training and perspective public employees are perfectly positioned to make fairly accurate predictions and calculate probability without complex formulas and exercises that generally get them no closer to an accurate prediction. Is your agency prepared for the challenges ahead? Do you discuss various possibilities, their predictability and probability?

With over three decades working in and with federal, state and local government, John Luthy understands public agencies.  Known for his real world, straight talking style, he is a leading futurist specializing in city, county, state, and federal long-range thinking and planning. John is the author of Operations Planning: A Guide for Public Officials and Managers in Troubled Times, and The Strategic Planning Guide, both published by the International City/ County Management Association (ICMA). An innovative and dynamic presenter, John is frequently asked to speak and consult on how to prepare public organizations and communities for emerging challenges (public futures at http://www.futurescorp.com).

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