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Understanding Complex Events

We are witnessing dramatic and disruptive events play out with increasing frequency within the United States and across the world: the COVID crisis, street protests in Cuba and South Africa, wildfires in Australia and the western United States, flooding in Europe, and the assassination of the Haitian president. In this Analytic Insider, I use a technique—Key Drivers Analysis—to demonstrate the use of structured analysis to make sense of complex situations.

When the press reports a major unexpected and dramatic event, the first question to ask yourself is: What Key Drivers would explain why this phenomenon occurred?

A Key Driver is a force or factor that fundamentally determines how or why an event will occur.

If you can identify a robust and comprehensive set of Key Drivers, you can better understand why something happened and anticipate better how future events will unfold. By understanding the Key Drivers, decision makers know where best they can exert the most leverage, and analysts understand what factors or forces will most likely determine how the situation evolves.

Example #1: Is Cuba Approaching a Tipping Point?
Recent public demonstrations on the streets of many towns and cities in Cuba reflect deep-seated dissatisfaction with the regime’s inability to meet the needs of its people—particularly with regard to inoculating the population against the ravages of COVID-19. Cuba prides itself on the quality of its health system. It enjoys the highest ratio of doctors to patients in the Western Hemisphere, but it has failed to inoculate its citizens.

The Castro brothers are no longer in power, and the people are restless. Whether dramatic political change will come to Cuba is hard to predict, but the answer to that question will revolve around an assessment of how these Key Drivers play out in the coming months:

  • The government’s success in managing the COVID crisis.
  • The government’s ability to deliver basic services, especially food, to the people.
  • The population’s access to the internet and other communications networks.
  • The emergence of resistance leaders who are too popular to be arrested or killed.

The current regime is unlikely to make much progress on the first two drivers. President Biden announced on 15 July that the United States was exploring how it could restore internet connectivity on the island. Much will depend on whether leaders emerge to mobilize a popular resistance without being eliminated.

Example #2: Has COVID Fundamentally Changed Business Practices?
COVID-19 dramatically changed how business is conducted on a daily basis. Work from home has become standardized and office meetings, conferences, and training have transitioned rapidly from in-person to virtual/online collaborative experiences.

The question is—once the COVID crisis is behind us—will we return to conducting business the way we did pre-COVID or have business practices been transformed for the long term?

In mid-July, Pherson facilitated a Foresight workshop hosted by the State Department’s Overseas Security Analysis Council (OSAC) that engaged senior analytic and security specialists from 20 global companies to focus on this question.

We identified three Key Drivers that will determine how the dynamic will play out:

  • The Evolution of the Virus: Will it be a persistent problem or a declining concern?
  • COVID Narratives: Will the public space engage the issue from a constructionist/problem-solving perspective or be dominated by destructive disinformation and conspiracy theory rhetoric?
  • Reimagining the Workspace: Will business leaders and workers return to their offices and past practices or will they institute reimagined business practices that emphasize more remote work, networking, and matrix management?

The future business workplace will also be influenced by two potential major Disruptors:

  • Surprising Innovations in Technology: Will new technologies emerge that protect private, distributed networks; enable effective collaboration systems; and ensure secure data protection?
  • New Security Risk Patterns: Have potential adversaries and competitors learned how to take advantage of our distributed work patterns and can these vulnerabilities be overcome?

A Disruptor is an innovation or intervention that significantly alters existing practices, i.e. the  automobile, the iPhone, or ransomware.

By identifying and exploring these Key Drivers, it should be easier to anticipate the potential for fundamental and dramatic change.

Learn more about Key Drivers in the Foresight section in Structured Analytic Techniques for Intelligence Analysis, 3rd ed., (2021) or take one of our upcoming workshops on Foresight Structured Analytic Techniques.

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