Written evidence submitted by Nik Gowing and Chris Langdon, Thinking the Unthinkable (TTU) project
CONFRONTING GLOBAL THREATS AND DISRUPTION:
HOW TO CHALLENGE OURSELVES TO THINK UNTHINKABLES
There is a natural institutional and personal resistance to Think the Unthinkable for major risks that are wrongly considered to be unlikely. The devastating nature of the subsequent shocks to our society from COVID-19 has obviously reinforced what our TTU work had already identified and warned about. It is the imperative to work and think more radically, whatever the professional and career risk in doing so. That does not come easy in government. Indeed, there are formidable in-built, institutional drag chains and resistances.
Our focus is not just on the effectiveness of the bodies and institutions named and set out in the formal ambitions for this enquiry. It must also be about the human inefficiencies and vulnerabilities of those who work in them, and ultimately their relationships to those who make the final political decisions.
However new realities within public service mean there is the likelihood of even greater risk aversion and professional fear among even the most talented, just when the opposite is needed.
Our TTU work highlights how conformity and conformist attitudes are core limiters to the breadth or perceptions now needed to embrace unthinkables. That conformity carries a high cost. Our published work has already concluded that the conformity which qualifies many leaders for the top now disqualifies most of them from accepting, embracing then dealing with the new scale of risk and disruption.
We are not optimistic that current cultures, mindsets and behaviours are anywhere close to being primed and prepared for innovating or transforming at the speed and scale that are necessary. We urge that the JCNSS’s findings highlight that as a priority.
Reason for the submission
We were asked directly by the committee advisers to submit it.
“In the new era of disruption, leaders must challenge longstanding assumptions and zombie orthodoxies in order to lead with authority”.
This was the headline summary in a Thinking the Unthinkable (TTU) paper we prepared for a staff workshop organised by a forward leaning department within one Whitehall ministry in 2019. The gathering was designed to calibrate how public servants could prepare themselves, their departments and ultimately their ministers, for the kind of unthinkables that increasingly we would all have to confront. We warned that the need for this transformation and shedding of orthodoxy was urgent.
The core reality is that there is a natural institutional and personal resistance to Think the Unthinkable for major risks that are wrongly considered to be unlikely. Yet unthinkable is how many will rate the extreme scenarios having to be considered by the JCNSS. The devastating nature of the subsequent shocks to our society from COVID-19 has obviously reinforced what we had already identified and warned about. It is the imperative to work and think more radically, whatever the professional and career risk in doing so. That does not come easy in government. Indeed, there are formidable in-built, institutional drag chains and resistances.
As we report later, the Whitehall session surfaced significant frustrations among civil servant attendees. Many voiced how their ability to think differently, bravely and in unthinkable ways was routinely discouraged and stifled by those zombie orthodoxies. Too many institutional and personal frictions are built into the current decision-making system. Visionary perspectives are often discouraged or suppressed. This is exacerbated by the attitude of ministers who believe they are right, know everything and therefore should not be challenged by radical perspectives that orthodoxy considers as too marginal. This is further compounded by a reputational fear of over committing both politically and financially to a threat or risk whose inevitability might appear far from certain despite warnings posted in risk registers.
The same frustrations were voiced loudly but confidentially behind closed doors when TTU led two sessions for top civil servants at the first conference of the new National Leadership Centre on 29 January 2019. The frank contributions we heard there just before COVID-19 struck mirrored this angst and these anxieties. These have also been revealed to us candidly in the corporate sector – both in the UK and internationally.
We recommend that defining the limiting reality of these institutional constraints should be at the heart of the JCNSS’s considerations in this enquiry.
There is no point identifying a risk if the system is not liberated and welcoming enough for it to be considered. We write this because we describe our experience in the TTU project as follows: ‘We work with you to turn radical disruption and uncertainty to your advantage. We do original research interviewing leaders. We share this in speaking events, publications and with our clients. We help build a new leadership that thrives on change’
Our focus is not just on the effectiveness of the bodies and institutions named and set out in the formal ambitions for this enquiry. The focus must also be about the human inefficiencies and vulnerabilities of those who work in them, and ultimately their relationships to those who make the final political decisions.
Based on hundreds of interviews and conversations, our TTU work highlights how conformity and conformist attitudes are core limiters to the breadth or perceptions now needed to embrace unthinkables. That conformity carries a high cost. Our published work concluded some time ago that the conformity which qualifies many leaders for the top now disqualifies most of them from accepting, embracing then dealing with the new scale of risk and disruption. What has been remarkable is the number of leaders and those working for them who have quietly nodded agreement.
We need to underline that this reality was clear for many years before the global societal earthquake of COVID-19. It then became starkly clear after unthinkables like the shock of the Novichok poisoning by Russian agents of Sergei Skripal and his daughter in 2018 on UK soil. The similar poisoning of Alexei Navalny and sudden public pressure in Germany to cancel the Nordsteam 2 gas pipeline from Russia illustrate vividly how the unthinkable has to be thinkable.
But were they unthinkables?
As we have argued time and again since we started our TTU project work in 2014, developments like these should not be regarded as just unthinkables on the outer fringes of probability. They were possible. Yet how far did the possibility of them happening make progress through the hierarchy of institutional analysis and decision making?
Most important for the highly imperfect process of policy making and risk assessment in this new radically uncertain environment is that they were not unthinkable but unapalatable. This is the term that a wise former top ambassador told us best encapsulated the tensions faced by those at all levels, especially close to the toP. Not correctly reading the unpalatable is the reason why ministers and senior civil servants appear blind-sided by events that were foreseeable. This is even if they are identified by more junior level officials, UK Embassies, or the intelligence agencies, plus external experts who are consulted.
The evidence and analysis was usually there to be ingested and analysed. But for a host of reasons few – if any – of those involved in reviewing evidence and probabilities wanted - or had the bandwidth and official support - to consider the possible dire implications in ways that should have been encouraged and sanctioned. They were unpalatable because senior leaders either failed to listen, failed to take note or failed to take appropriate action. That is why in our work, thinking the unpalatable is a more accurate overarching title. But to ensure that our message had greatest impact we adopted Herman Kahn’s “unthinkable” phrase from his thought experiment during the 1962 Cuba missile crisis on the possibilities for nuclear war.
Some JNCSS committee members who have held ministerial office will have their own experiences of this. Some will recognise what we write. Others may be resistant and sceptical. So for the latter, we need to reassure them about the nature of unthinkables.
On 1 June 2016 we highlighted in a front cover analysis for The World Today published by Chatham House the advance signals that pointed to the shocks of both a vote for Brexit 23 days later, then the nomination and election of Donald Trump as US President. As we detailed, the evidence was there. We wrote: “until a few weeks ago, what many viewed as outlandish ‘unthinkables’ were not even being considered or investigated as corporate or political risk assessments. Now they have to be”.
But few in government and the commentariat were prepared to believe it. Indeed, many scorned our analysis. But in the UK that narrow human vision and institutional blindness on public emotions about Brexit carried a huge political cost. As Prime Minister David Cameron wrote three years later about his Brexit judgements: “I am sorry, I failed”.
The JNCSS must therefore ask how the UK public service can put in place radical and confidence building processes which in future will prevent similar mis-readings of unpalatable evidence and trends.
Institutionally the mindsets and process tram lines have been allowed to develop in ways that are too narrow, prescriptive and constrained for consideration of the new risks and threats on the JNCSS agenda. Conditions for career progression have been an important limiter here. Increasingly, so have the professional imperatives to conform.
The JNCSS should therefore be asking the following two questions.
In March 2018, the Government’s National Security Review had elevated ‘diseases and natural hazards affecting the UK’ to be one of six principal challenges likely to drive national security priorities over the coming decade. An influenza pandemic and emerging diseases were categorised as a top tier risk in the National Security Risk Assessment. So firstly, why was the scale of the COVID-19 pandemic such a systemic shock? Secondly, why in early 2020 did it then overwhelm the capacity of government to envision what unfolded, then cope? This will be a key question for the Public Inquiry proposed by the prime minister on July 15. In the interim, it is a key question for the JNCSS inquiry.
We underline that institutional and even personal reluctance to identify then embrace the likely scale of an unthinkable or unpalatable are critical limiters.
Our TTU work was catalysed in 2014 by President Putin’s dark actions in Eastern Ukraine, then by Russia’s seizure and annexation of Crimea. Both highlighted a new blatant disregard for international law. At the time such actions were unthinkable. But they heralded a new trend of a belief in impunity and disrespect for hard won international norms. Few inside government ever dared to believe this was possible. Yet this was the new, fast emerging unthinkable. A new and sinister normal was evolving. But it was ill-defined.
Minds remained conditioned by a certain conformity and disbelief at what was happening. Hence the description: unthinkable.
Europe’s 2015 migration crisis highlighted the same. Few in national Government and EU-level realised early enough the eventual scale and nature of the human wave that was already threatening much of the continent. Then came the negative political reaction. The new reality of huge human waves on the move fuelled nationalistic protectionist instincts in ways which have gone on to undermine so much that has been achieved on European unity and solidarity since the collapse of the Soviet Union.
A clear trend of unthinkables was emerging. It must be assumed that this will continue. And it will do so even more relentlessly and without end.
Firstly the global instability and societal shock created by COVID-19 will be compounded by the parallel exponential impact and even greater destabilising nature of the Climate Emergency. Then there are a whole host of other existential threats to the assumed stability in our lives which almost everyone takes for granted. For example, the new cyber realities. How must the public be prepared for the immobilisation by hostile activity of critical infrastructure plus all the satellite and communication systems that drive the connectivity we take for granted in so much in our lives? Then there are the new smart weapons systems being developed by Russia and China.
The instinctive difficulty of public servants to envisage then accept the dramatic scale and policy implications of such unthinkable events was highlighted for our TTU project during work with the German government in Berlin.
In 2016 the German Foreign Ministry invited TTU to present our findings and catalyse new thinking. The enlightened head of policy planning confided to us his frustration. He had identified what he labelled “the end to tranquillity” because of the fast emerging the new realities in Russia and Europe. But remarkably almost none of his ministry colleagues – even at the highest levels - were prepared to even countenance consideration of such possibilities. They viewed Ukraine and Crimea as a blip or aberration of Russian behaviour. Yet in time the end of tranquility would multiply. European unity would marginalise the growing, nationalist interests and authoritarian trends now seen in countries like Hungary, Poland and the Czech Republic.
Did we succeed? Two years later our then host shrugged with exasperation. Ministry minds had not by and large made the huge perceptual leap that was necessary. The unthinkable remained just that. Remarkably, conversations in recent weeks involving personnel inside the German Foreign Ministry have confirmed similar frustrations. “Hierachies are very strong” which means “hierarchical thinking”, complained one voice. As a result there are “no channels for dissent”.
This highlights the mindwalls which continue to be so hard to dismantle inside government and public service, despite the new existential threats being examined by the JNCSS.
During 2019 and the start of 2020, nothing improved. Fuelled by leaderships like Trump, Putin and Bolsinaro, the likelihood then inevitability of unthinkables and unapalatables increased exponentially. Yet compliance with zombie orthodoxies and the conformist thinking which secured public servants their positions and promotions still had the upper hand.
Before the world seized up because of COVID-19, much of the stability and ‘norms’ that we have all long taken granted had been further unpicked. So our headline analysis for AIRMIC risk managers association at the start of 2020 warned that stability was unravelling. “2020 requires new 20/20 vision for risk”, we wrote. We continued: “The nature of risk must be broadened and re-calibrated swiftly. This is a super-urgent priority for January 2020. . . The implications for risk managers are profound. Nothing should be rejected as too extreme. There is an urgent new opportunity for risk professionals to take the lead”.
That was just before COVID-19 hit.
Now we are in the destabilising grip of a global pandemic which Sir Jeremy Farrar, director of the Wellcome Trust says “will be with us forever”. But how profoundly have those at the heart of making policy and offering reasoned advice transformed their mindset, culture and behaviour in the ways urgently required to embrace and plan for this new reality?
This question requires a candid assessment and reckoning. There has been admirable innovation and remarkable transformation in many areas. But vison and learning have been slow – far slower than they should be. Overall our very strong impression at TTU is that the answer is “not much” and certainly “far from enough”.
The catastrophic impact of the pandemic has exposed in brutal ways the tunnel vision narrowness of perceptions and assumptions about the nature of risk. Catch up largely continues to rule instead of the brave over-the-horizon insight and vision that is needed. Public assumptions of the inevitability of stability continuing and a natural upward path of self-betterment in their lives must be shredded.
But none of this dark possibility of what could be called societal implosion was on the internal government agendas at the start of 2020. It must be asked: why not? And if it was not then, is it on the agenda now? We hope the JNCSS findings will reinforce the new imperative.
Tragically we are not optimistic that current cultures, mindsets and behaviours are anywhere close to being primed and prepared for innovating or transforming at the speed and scale that are necessary. That is our summary takeaway. We urge that the JCNSS’s findings highlight that as a priority.
This is based on extensive discussions and takeaways which reveal the scale of deep and frequently uncomfortable soul searching. During six years of ongoing interviewing, many senior policy-makers explained to us why “stuff is not thought about”. Public servants at many levels told us that they feel “exposed and anxious”. Visionary thoughts which could highlight unthinkables that are outside natural government perceptions are largely actively discouraged.
The analysis by Michael Gove in his 2020 Ditchley speech about the shortcomings of UK governance was in many ways correct. He highlighted the need to “overcome our own crises of authority” using Rooseveltian principles. This requires “not a change of personnel and rhetoric” but a “change in structure, ambition and organisation”. This reflected uncannily much of our own analysis about how leaders need to manage disruption so that they thrive on change. Before the pandemic many had labelled our findings justified but uncomfortable.
However, Gove’s dramatic framing for how public service can and must self-improve was not expressed in language of encouragement. Instead there seemed to be explicit threats for those too anxious to take the risk of embarking on the huge changes of attitudes and structures that he sought. This does not resolve the obstacles to surfacing vison and insight which we continue to highlight at Thinking the Unthinkable. It merely perpetuates them.
In our view, for the challenges being examined by the JCNSS this compounds the likelihood of even greater risk aversion and professional fear among even the most talented, just when the opposite is needed.
Our firm Thinking the Unthinkable alert going forward for 2021 and beyond is urgent. It is that on risk, the climate emergency and that host of other pressing issues, many leaders will be caught with their pants down. But as we have written: when your pants are around your ankles and you suddenly have to run to catch up, you fall over! So leaders beware!
The price will be high for those who fail to get this – and they are still the majority. In government and corporate C Suites, board members and all top executives across business and political life must do far more than just politely take note. They must act decisively. There is no longer a luxury of time to reflect or ponder, or even to hope that the previous ways will return.
Yet resistance remains. A recent exchange with a top business leader who had just joined the board of a major corporate was sobering. We were discussing the effectiveness of his organisation’s risk committee and officers. The narrowness of their attitudes and approach was a huge concern for him. But he described how their “heads are completely down” with the focus only “on the immediacy of here and now” and “survival”. They have become “task and goal orientated”, and are “only zoomed in on today” with attitudes tied to a “tick list” and “no one zooming out” to think more broadly of risks beyond today. We asked why he had not instigated a frank exchange on the new realities. The extraordinary response was that the institutional attitude is: “don’t frighten the children”. He added: “If you push too hard, the walls go up even further”. Even if they are leaders “they get scared and become more resistant”.
So what reactions can we report from inside Whitehall.
Here is our read out from the workshop we led in one ministry.
Comments were as robust as we had hoped and been encouraged to expect. No-one challenged the core proposition of the need to think unthinkables. The mood was constructive and remarkably positive. There was palpable appreciation indeed even relief from some that we had highlighted the anxieties and frustrations that they and many colleagues felt.
First, came the fact that the issue was bring aired in ways not always being matched internally. “We don’t do enough of this across the organisation” said one senior official. “We are still far too hierarchical” said another. There was a mood in the room that these existential questions must now be faced. “How do we think? How do we think ahead? How do we make bold change? We need to do it differently and to change our culture” was how one summarised what is needed.
Our session confirmed a mood of anxiety, and then determination to engage frankly, especially across the generations. The long established and embedded top down approach discouraged “unthinkable” thinking. Attendees wanted more recognition of the depth of challenge to the way they currently work. As outsiders we concluded that this was currently missing.
We also heard a clear appetite for much more open engagement and limit-free discussion. The issues went well beyond the stresses created by Brexit and the progressive shredding of stability in the international rules-based system. “We are all so pushed by the issue of the moment, and there’s so little time to take a step back and think conceptually about the huge changes, and the way we approach these challenges,” said one director.
“Right now, is our ‘oh shit’ moment,” confided one official. “If we don’t know how to deal with it and embrace it properly, rather than slightly change our language on it, we’re not going to be the [ministry] we want to be in five years”.
One younger participant even wondered if the current concept of leadership was still appropriate. “The structures - one strong man, it’s almost always a strong man – don’t seem particularly suited to such a complicated world. Why not structure our organisations in a way that don’t rely on such a pointy end at the top?”
“How do we help our leaders understand how they need to engage with us better so that trust is built”, asked one official, reflecting the findings in the Edelman Trust Barometer on how views on trust within top corporates are having to change super-fast.
“What are the blocks we should be looking at to build that sense of trust” asked this voice. Many heads in the room silently nodded agreement. Why? “That is massive and fundamental to who we are and what we can deliver now”.
The remedial action which many are looking for does not carry a financial cost or require a budget. It needs encouragement right from the top to change culture, mind set and behaviour. Everyone at every level must have a licence to experiment and fail safely, while being held accountable. We reported that “fail safely” was the new dictum at the heart of the spirit for future leaders on the Higher Command and Staff Course at the Defence Academy.
How brave would this department dare to be? It was clear to us that while progress has been made there is a long way to go.
“We are an organisation where risk hasn’t been rewarded,” said one voice. From an early age people get promoted by taking less risk. “Risk takers don’t make their way up the office. So actually, as an institution we’re poor at it. ... It’s hard in a big organisation like this to be a maverick. You either stay low down and accept that’s your role, or you change, or you leave. Culture shift around risk taking and embracing failure is likely to happen very incrementally and slowly.” As this voice echoed to us: “the message I heard from you is that’s not good enough”.
The imperative for change was highlighted by a stark analysis from the Munich Security Conference (MSC). It opened by daring to pose the question: “The Great Puzzle: Who will pick up the pieces?” The answer from the MSC chairman, the veteran German diplomat Wolfgang Ischinger, was: “it is becoming obvious that new management tools are needed to prevent a situation in which not much may be left to pick up”.
We emphasise strongly that the deep organisational change which is essential is about more than just management tools and organisational charts. It is about changing the culture, mind set and behaviour within an organisation.
“The plea from me is about the cultural change that I think is at the heart of what Nik and Chris have been talking about,” concluded one senior voice at the Whitehall workshop. He added: “We [must] make sure the culture across the organisation changes, and that everyone thinks in this way. I think we have a come a long way, but we haven’t got there fast enough, and we have not gone far enough”.
What are the takeaways for the JCNSS?
In 2018, Nik Gowing co-authored (with Chris Langdon) “Thinking the Unthinkable” (TTU). In this era of disruption and a new normal leaders reveal that they are ‘scared’, ‘confused’ and ‘overwhelmed’. Nik founded the ongoing, dynamic Thinking the Unthinkable project in 2014. The aim was to analyse the new frailties for leadership, including from the new digital and cyber realities. The huge global impacts of COVID-19 in 2020 have now confirmed all the project’s warnings to leaders about their vulnerabilities.
Nik was a main news presenter for BBC World News 1996-2014. He presented The Hub with Nik Gowing, BBC World Debates, Dateline London.
For 18 years he worked at ITN. He was bureau chief in Rome and Warsaw, and Diplomatic Editor for Channel Four News (1988-1996).
He has served on the councils of Chatham House (1998–2004), the Royal United Services Institute (2005–present), the Overseas Development Institute (2007-2014), the Westminster Foundation for Democracy (1996-2005).
Nik has been a Visiting Professor at Kings College, London and Nanyang University (NTU), Singapore. In 2018 he advised the President of the UN General Assembly on leadership challenges.
Chris Langdon FRSA is Co-Director of Thinking the Unthinkable (TTU). Chris specialises in public policy and governance. He works with senior policy-makers, business leaders and heads of third sector organisations. His most recent clients for TTU include two Directorates of the European Commission and a global conservation charity.
Chris assists organisational transformation with a focus on culture, mindset and behaviour. Drawing on the Thinking the Unthinkable research, Chris is also a speaker at events on coping with radical uncertainty. He has overseen the TTU research programme which now totals 5,000+ pages of transcripts from conversations with senior current and Next Gen leaders.
Chris was MD of the Oxford Research Group from 2010-2014. He worked on European policy in 8 EU capitals for the ESI thinktank, 2008-2010. From 1997-2008 he was an Associate Director of the UK Foreign and Commonwealth Office’s Executive Agency, Wilton Park. There his specialisms included digital transformation, welfare to work policies, and reform in Central and South East Europe. He chaired over 50 senior level conferences held at Wilton Park and across Europe.
Chris was a TV producer for 18 years; he was senior foreign affairs producer for BBC TV News during the fall of communism from 1989-1990. He also worked for APTN as launch Europe Editor, and began his career as an ITN trainee and then worked as a writer.
30 September 2020
 For fuller details and background of our work see www.thinkunthink.org.
 As detailed in https://committees.parliament.uk/call-for-evidence/150/biosecurity-and-national-security/
 Thinking the Unthinkable by Nik Gowing and Chris Langdon. John Catt Educational Ltd. (2018)
 As detailed in https://committees.parliament.uk/call-for-evidence/150/biosecurity-and-national-security/
 Thinking the Unthinkable by Nik Gowing and Chris Langdon. John Catt Educational Ltd. (2018)