In 1900, the consensus was, Europe was top dog, Europe would rule the world forever.
In 1920, Europe had destroyed itself, and the consensus was, Germany was finished.
In 1940, the consensus was, Germany was top dog, France and Britain were finished.
1960, the consensus was, the US and the USSR were joint top dogs, and this rivalry would remain forever.
In 1980, having gone through Vietnam, Nixon, Carter, the Civil Rights movement, and all that social upheaval, America was done, America was a spent force. It was just a matter of time until the Soviet Union left America behind in the dust.
By 2000, the consensus said, the Soviet Union was over and we had reached what Fukuyama called, “The End of History”, neoliberal democracy was the only game in town, including with China, at least, eventually.
In 2020, the consensus said, China is going to overtake America, and America will drown under a big wave of COVID and social turmoil.
What does all this tell us?
That consensus is usually wrong. And the bigger the issue, the more likely this is.
In 1920, nobody saw the rise of Germany. In 1960, nobody saw Viet Nam. In 1980, nobody saw the collapse of the Soviet Union. In all these cases, all the things that proved the consensus wrong were all things that were not, nor could not have been, predicted in advance.
The lesson here is, although consensus is a good thing, organizations need it to function, after all – it’s just that the world is far more complex and unpredictable than the consensus normally allows for, so be careful.
PS. We got these insights from reading the books of George Friedman, the great geopolitical strategist. He’s worth a Google or two.
it’s a joy to read your blog!
consensus is not the problem but the fact that we humans are very bad at admitting that we don’t really know. Amy Edmondson said it perfectly: it’s hard to learn if you already know ….
You may not like Jeff Bezos but he acknowledges that he has to deal with uncertainty and makes provisions to deal with it, while most leaders don’t dare to think that way. They rather act with the illusion of certainty. The difference between learning and keep repeating the same mistakes.