In honor of World Future Day, which is celebrated annually worldwide on March 1st, we share our favorite foresight terms all month long to raise awareness of Strategic Foresight. Today’s term is “Cone of Plausibility.”
The cone of plausibility is meant to graphically represent the relationship between the present moment and the certainty of our knowledge about future events. It provides a useful visual heuristic for planners looking into the future. But as the diagram depicts, the further into the future we seek to plan, the greater the number of possible events.
This first public mention of the “cone of plausibility” was by Charles Taylor in 1988 to illustrate the geopolitical scenarios he posed in Alternative World Scenarios for Strategic Planning (Carlisle Barracks: Strategic Studies Institute). Since Taylor’s initial development of a scenarios cone, or “cone of plausibility,” many simplified and modern alternatives have been developed by futurists, including Trevor Hancock, Clement Bezold and Joseph Voros.
Insights for strategic planning from the cone of plausibility
- While the ‘probable future’ is only one of many possible futures, it is identifiably the one future that most people in an industry or firm tacitly and expressly agree is likely to happen. The probable future is what would occur if current patterns and trends continued without intervention or unexpected influence.
- Although the ‘probable future’ is the likely course of events, planners who focus future preparations solely on this version of the future may be in for a shock when unexpected developments unfold. It is therefore wise in strategic planning to recognize that the firm’s shared view of the probable future is just that–a shared view. This consciousness around the probable future opens a space for discussions of what may not be probable, but could happen and deserves consideration.
- Futurists use the concept of ‘preferable futures’ as a reminder that people have agency, if not total control, over how the future unfolds. As you can see in the image of the cone of plausibility, the preferable future (the orange color) lies at the border of the plausible future. Firms that seek to enhance their competitive advantage look in this outer ‘ring’ for opportunities that others may not see.
- The concept of ‘possible futures’ refers to the outer limit of what can happen within the constraints of the physical laws of the universe. However, many of these scenarios are not really plausible, barring nearly magical or catastrophic events. The ‘plausible future’ falls between all of the nearly infinite possible futures that could unfold and the narrow contours of the probable future.
Case Study – The cone of plausibility as a strategic planning tool
In 2018, Boeing had a very rosy outlook for itself and commercial aviation in general. Artificial intelligence and autonomy (as well as new materials) played a large role in Boeing’s intention to be a leader of a “new golden age of aerospace.” Boeing saw AI as a driver of greater safety rather than a potential challenge to safety when AI was used in piloted aircraft.
One of Boeing’s focus areas is Urban Air Mobility (defined as short flights in cities–such as air taxis), which presented an arena to explore safety and artificial intelligence questions. Boeing’s ‘probable future’ in 2018 looked like this:
According to CTO Dr. Greg Hyslop, “our safety record in the past two years has been the best ever in the industry.” Airplanes are also demonstrably safer than automobiles. One of Boeing’s reasonable assumptions a year ago would be continued safety at a very high level.
A second assumption that Boeing was making in 2018 is that there will be fewer pilots in the future (because militaries are shrinking and fewer trained pilots will become available). Artificial intelligence and autonomously piloted planes would be necessary to make up that shortfall.
So, it would have been easy for Boeing to identify the probable future and its preferable future, a scenario in which the company captured at an early stage the advantages to be gained from artificial intelligence, partly by moving quickly to clear regulatory hurdles against the use of AI or autonomy in commercial aircraft.
However, there were other plausible, if unlikely, scenarios in the short term. What if there was a fatal crash of a Boeing aircraft? Even less plausible, what if there were two? Under what circumstances might that plausibly happen? And what might be the implications? How might technology, the continued development of increasingly autonomous aircraft, and the airline’s business proceed in the case of the possible but unlikely occurring? Perhaps if greater consideration of potentially unfavorable or merely possible futures had been given, the fatal accidents that did occur could have been prevented.
Strategic planning that focuses narrowly on the probable future can cost companies the opportunity to effectively consider risks associated with their products and how those risks could impact both company public perception and overall profitability. The cone of plausibility serves as a useful reminder that the probable future is only one of many plausible futures to be considered in the planning process.
What can you do with the cone of plausibility?
Take action and book a consultation with Prescient to explore all of your possible futures.
Read a case study in which Prescient helped a biotechnology firm that was surprised when unexpected developments in the market disrupted the ‘probable future.’
And learn more about our other favorite strategic foresight terms: