Be prepared to be surprised

On Sunday evening, my daughter, her boyfriend and I watched amazed as two bright orange globes traversed the night sky in perfect formation. Within a minute they were followed by a third, identical to the others, describing the same southerly parabola.


They weren’t aircraft. They weren’t fireworks. They made no noise. They were definitely flying objects, – and – as far as we were concerned – unidentified.


So I did what any right thinking, new age star gazer would do. I posted a report on


Was I planning to view a celestial newcomer at that time? Indeed I wasn’t. My modest plan for the evening was Downton Abbey and an early night before the rigours of the working week. If I had had half a mind to the interruption model, it was more about catching the latest blockbuster commercials that tend to be slotted into the closing sequence of X Factor. Just before my Sky at Night moment, I did in fact see a distinctly odd spot for the splendidly rebranded Eurostar (all credit to the design agency Someone), starring Jarvis Cocker (why?).


The “UFO” experience made me think about unpredictability, and how refreshing it is to be surprised now and then by something completely unexpected.


It also made me revisit a powerful piece of thinking that was new to me when my friend Serge Nicholls brought it to my attention.  


It is about two types of reasoning – one which starts by setting a goal and working rationally towards its achievement. The other does not begin with a specific goal. It starts typically with a group of people, and allows goals to emerge contingently. This came out of a study into 30 entrepreneurs in the US, and what makes them tick. The author of the study “What makes Entrepreneurs Entrepreneurial” (2008) is Saras Sarasvathy of the University of Washington Business School. She calls the goal-driven reasoning “causal”, and the more lateral, discursive sort “effectual”. It is effectual reasoning, or effectuation, that is characteristic of almost all entrepreneurs.


Apparently most entrepreneurs consciously or instinctively plan on the basis of three assets:


·        Who they and their friends are, and what they all bring to the party

·        What they know – education, training and experience

·        Who they know – in terms of social and professional networks


Sarasvathy contrasts a goal-driven warrior like Genghis Khan (objective  – conquest of the known world), with the explorers like Magellan and Columbus who set out on voyages across uncharted waters, with confidence in their own abilities and not a lot else.


There are a couple of quotes from Saravathy that I particularly liked. The first was: “Entrepreneurs…act as if they believe that the future is not out there to be discovered, but that it gets created through the very strategies of the players”. I suppose one of the great explorers would have concluded that it doesn’t matter if you don’t know where you have arrived, as long as you do something useful when you get there!


The other quotation was: “Expert entrepreneurs explicitly stated that being in a market that can predicted was not such a good idea, since there would always be someone smarter and with deeper pockets who would predict it better than they would. But being in an unpredictable market meant that the market could be shaped by their own decisions and actions”.


Armed with effectual logic, we can cope better with surprises – good or bad. I will return soon to what I believe are the implications for decision theory, at least for “effectuators”.


Meanwhile my new friends at have solved the mystery of our orange globes. Chinese Lanterns. Did you know they can reach a mile high or more? Scary!