John L. Petersen, 54, president of the Arlington Institute. Author of The Road to 2015 (Waite Group Press, 1994) and Out of the Blue (The Arlington Institute, 1997).
Most pictures of the future leave out one thing: surprises. There is a class of low-probability, high-impact events - wild cards - that will potentially have a fundamental impact on the human condition. These big-ticket events include everything from human cloning, to an asteroid slamming into the Earth, to the invention of time travel. A wild card is characterized by scope (it's so big that it shakes up the whole system) and speed (it's so fast that the system can't adjust to the shock).
In the coming years, wild cards will only get wilder and come faster, and people who recognize and learn to make sense of them will have a real advantage. I call this "surprise management." Surprise management is about identifying the events that could fundamentally change our environment and our identity.
Decoder Key There are three questions you want to ask. First, what are the most important wild cards for me, my organization, and my customers? What would really wipe me out? Second, how can I anticipate these things? That requires finding reliable sources and making sense of what comes in over the transom. And third, what can I do about my wild cards? You might be able to affect events before they happen - but only if you know about them, are concerned about them, study them, and look for the early indicators.
For more information, visit the Web http://www.arlingtoninstitute.org or email John L. Peterson firstname.lastname@example.org.
A version of this article appeared in the February/March 1998 issue of Fast Company magazine.