Senior policy makers must resolve an inherent tension in formulating strategy. Hal Brands observes that strategy is beset with tensions including “between the need for foresight and the fact of uncertainty; between the steadiness and purpose that are necessary to plan ahead, and the agility that is required to adapt on the fly.” Resolving that tension, between foresight and inevitable uncertainty, is the holy grail of sound strategy. A leader that has explored the contours of the possible and considered potential hedges or branch plans is far ahead of any single-minded strategic hedgehogs bent on driving down a single path.
Government agencies tend to think about the future in linear and evolutionary steps, heavily relying upon past practices and historical contexts that may no longer be relevant. This can increase the likelihood of surprise. Bureaucratic preferences can also blind leadership to potential challenges. Surprise doesn’t always spring forth from unexpected events or collective ignorance, but rather from group denial. Most shocks were envisioned by someone, warned about, but resolutely ignored. There is little incentive for leaders and their planning staffs to confront “pink flamingos” that they have studiously avoided because they require bold changes.