The latest good book on long-termism – The Long View: Why We Need to Transform How the World Sees Time, by Richard Fisher – has an intriguing section on language and different metaphors for time.
I did my project on one common metaphor for time for a trainer training course some years ago, on using space: as in, looking forward, leave the past behind, back in time. (So ubiquitous a metaphor I don’t normally even notice it.)
Other cultures, quite reasonably, picture the future as behind them, because they can’t see it, not having eyes in the back of their heads.
The evidence suggests that if you think of time as a line extending away from you, the long future seems physically distant – and what’s physically distant is also known to seem less important, or at least much less vivid.
Put this together with a challenge we have in Asset Management with uncertainty and data, and I wondered if we need better language, starting with the difference between the past and future.
To put it bluntly, we can have data about the past, about things we’ve already observed or recorded, but we can’t have data about the future. We can only project forward from what we know, and must do so with an ever-present sense of the uncertainty of our projections. We don’t know what is going to happen to our assets tomorrow, let alone fifty years’ time. And yet we must act, in any case, because not to act is to make a decision with consequences in itself. (Annie Duke is very good on this.)
Asset Management confronts short-termism all the time, and even too often builds it in to our planning: short term AMPs that only look out five years, or less. But the assets we build, or fail to build, maintain or fail to maintain may still be the reality in 20, 50, a hundred years from now. And all of these decisions and actions in the context of slow-burn changes like climate catastrophe.
Fisher himself suggests, among other things, that we consciously try out the shoes of people in the future. To imagine being one of my own step-grandchildren looking back at what we did or failed to do in 2024. Or the Joanna Macy exercise of communicating what we did do with a descendant.
I have wondered for a while if we also need terms that bring out the uncertainty of the future.
In a creative set of sci-fi novels, Michael Coney told stories from the Ifalong. About how an action, a decision, will switch the happentrack. A universe in which it matters what decisions you make now, because it creates the actual track in the multitude of possibilities.
Asset Management has to live in the Ifalong, understanding probabilities the best we can, always trying to make an effective happentrack. That’s our job.
What images, models, metaphors for time, the future and uncertainty do you find useful?The diagram at the top is one we use at AMCL in teaching.
“What’s the first step to a good Strategic Asset Management Plan (SAMP)? A bad SAMP…”
My ex-colleague Ark Wingrove’s saying has resonated with clients since he first coined it. You do not have to wait for perfection; the important thing is to start, knowing you can improve as you go.
It works not just because it’s true. Just having someone tell you you won’t get everything in Asset Management perfect first time liberates us to try. Otherwise – and this surely tells us something about the asset culture we pick up, and need to change – we get frozen in the headlights of needing to be right.
It’s a profound truth of AM that you will never know enough about the future; and yet you still have to have a strategy, you still have to plan, you still have to make decisions that matter. And so inevitably we will get some important things wrong.
The approach that the AM documents and processes we produce are all iterative is, of course, built into the diagrams, the 6 Box Model and the flow of ISO 55000, continuous improvement and the ’learning loop’ of Plan-Do-Check-Adapt. The idea that, above all, we can’t leap straight from muddle to highly sophisticated Asset Management Planning has long been recognised in Australasia. We have to build, step by step, our planning evolving with our increasing understanding.
But it just struck me that it’s not simply how we improve things as we know more. The real blocks are thinking we know more than we do at the start, and the fear that we will be exposed for not knowing enough – the toxic aspects of being an expert.
Years ago Penny Burns came in to take my Sydney team through scenario planning. The real achievement of this was to move everyone away from their confidence. From believing they could ever be certain about the future.
In an exercise around understanding our levels of uncertainty in risk training this week, someone asked – tongue in cheek – how we could ‘win’.*
The urge to be right is natural, I guess, but it also goes with all sorts of baggage. That we won’t even start unless we can be certain. That it is better not to try than to run the risk of being wrong.
As though, for example, a strategy for Asset Management is a test we have to pass.
The principle of evolving, getting better as we go but never reaching 100% certainty. What examples of positively ‘embracing uncertainty’ have you seen in practice?
*Calibration training based partly on the work of Douglas Hubbard, see his The Failure of Risk Management. If you have never come across this, aiming to show off that you’re right that will ensure you don’t get it right. (And even telling people this doesn’t help them, at least the first time around.)