Lecture: Management and Wild Card Essay

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Futures 36 (2004) 201–218 www.elsevier.com/locate/futures Wild cards, weak signals and organisational improvisation Sandro Mendonca∗,1, Miguel Pina e Cunha b, Jari Kaivo-oja c,
Frank Ruff d a ˆ
ISCTE and Dinamia, Av. das Forcas Armadas 1649-026 Lisboa, Portugal
Universidade Nova de Lisboa, Faculdade de Economia, Rua Marques de Fronteira 20 1099-038
Lisboa, Portugal
Finland Futures Research Centre, Turku School of Economics and Business Administration, P.O. Box
110 FIN-20521 Turku, Finland d Society and Technology Research Group, DaimlerChrysler AG Alt-Moabit 96A 10559 Berlin,


This paper addresses the need for reliable action guidelines which can be used by organisations in turbulent environments. Building on current conceptual and empirical research, we suggest an analytical approach to the management of surprising and potentially damaging events. In order to do so we propose the wild card management system. Wild cards refer to sudden and unique incidents that can constitute turning points in the evolution of a certain trend. As the first of the two components of such a wild card system, we advocate a weak signal methodology to take into account those wild cards that can be anticipated by scanning the decision environment. The second component, the nurture of improvisation capabilities, is designed to deal with unanticipated ongoing crises. This paper can be seen as part of a broader agenda on how to manage in conditions of continuous but unpredictable change.
 2003 Published by Elsevier Ltd.

Corresponding author. Tel.: +351-21-7903278; fax: +351-21-7903933.
E-mail addresses: sfm@iscte.pt (S. Mendonca); mpc@fe.unl.pt (M. Pina e Cunha); Jari.Kaivo-oja@
tukkk.fi (J. Kaivo-oja); frank.ruff@daimlerchrysler.com (F. Ruff).
The order of author’s names does not represent any order of seniority. It reflects the sequence in which we entered into this project. Future collaborations will witness a rotation in our names.

0016-3287/$ - see front matter  2003 Published by Elsevier Ltd. doi:10.1016/S0016-3287(03)00148-4 202

S. Mendonca et al. / Futures 36 (2004) 201–218

1. Introduction

Wild card analysis is usually one of the most challenging issues in foresight. A wild card is a description of an occurrence that is assumed to be improbable, but which would have large and immediate consequences for organisational stakeholders if it were to take place. Usually such events are serious, destructive, catastrophic or anomalous and essentially not predictable. Furthermore, if such an occurrence takes place so quickly and powerfully that a normal, planned management process cannot make allowance for it, then the organisation becomes especially vulnerable. To be sure, it is also clear that if a wild card, does not give the organisation any possibility of reaction, it is irrelevant in practical terms. Consider the extreme example of a meteor hitting the Earth. This is an occurrence which is not easily introduced as an input into a conventional (or unconventional) corporate planning process. The range of conceivable wild cards is infinitely wide, containing many other events that the organisation cannot ignore without cost. Likewise, there is a great need for a basic understanding and practical approaches that can be used by organisations in turbulent and unforgiving environments in which unique and sudden events can happen.
The discussion of wild cards seems a suitable way of igniting the “strategic conversation” [1] exactly where it is most needed. Often, hasty actions by senior executives contribute to amplify the seriousness of the problems and heighten the public controversy created around a company. Examples include Royal Dutch/Shell being completely taken by surprise by the Greenpeace campaign against sinking the Brent Spar oil platform, Daimler and the A Class Series road-test accidents, and, more recently,
Ford and the Firestone…