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Why the Wall really came down…..

December 3, 2014

Looking backwards sometimes makes it easier to look into the future.

As we celebrate 25 years of helping organisations make “robust decisions in uncertain times”, the key events of 1989 seem like the ideal place to start our reflections.

UK interest rates peaked at 14.88%, the USSR pulled out of Afghanistan, South Africa began dismantling apartheid and thousands of students occupied Tiananmen Square.

Anyone who suffers from “Sat-Nav Rage” can trace their anger about wrong turns and dead ends to the launch of the first of 25 global positioning satellites. If you wanted the must-have toy for Christmas you would be eagerly expecting a Batmobile (albeit the Tim Burton version, not the Dark Knight!).

Whilst many more critical events occurred, perhaps the most talked about in the last few weeks has been the fall of the Berlin wall.

Many believe that the fall was a consequence of President Reagan’s policies and his direct intervention in Soviet affairs.

The reality is somewhat different and there are real lessons that can be learned about managing complex situations and using scenarios.

In her latest book, “The Collapse: The Accidental Opening of the Berlin Wall”, Professor Elise Sarotte¹ describes how the events of Nov 9th 1989 were not planned and were in fact the result of a series of mistakes made by East German officials. She cites the four years that Mikhail Gorbachev spent in power as being a catalyst.

Gorbachev had introduced reform to Soviet controlled Eastern Europe to enhance the Communist Party’s control. The reforms made the dictators in East Germany feel as though they should make changes too, starting with amendments to their draconian travel rules.

These changes alone would have had no bearing on the collapse of the wall were it not for the botched communication of this pseudo-reform at an International news conference on the night of Nov 9th.

Professor Sarotte describes the news report as “garbled.” A few key phrases were aired in isolation: that trips abroad would be “possible for every citizen”, starting “right away, immediately”.

The impression given to journalists and to the public was that the wall was open.

This miscommunication need not have led to the fall of the wall. The wall was still guarded. Shootings of civilians trying to cross into West Germany were still commonplace at this time.

With thousands heading to cross the wall, none of the East German regime believed the Stasi officer who repeatedly called them with accurate reports of swelling numbers, thousands of people at his gate, peaceful but a potential source of unrest. Recently released documentation reveals that a culture of mistrust was deeply embedded in the regime.

The authorities branded the officer both delusional and cowardly. Angry and insulted he decided to let the crowds out, igniting the already delicate situation.

We now recognise that the collapse came about more through the complexities of Soviet reforms, miscommunication and operational incompetence than purely Western intervention. So called “Black Swans” can arise from individual actions with unforeseen consequences.

Some say that we are unlikely to see change of this scale, and in this small space of time, again. Really?

When we look at scenarios at SAMI we often see “pockets of the future” in our immediate time horizon. When we look 25 years ahead, we need one “eye on the present” and the other on the scenarios we could find ourselves in.

When we look back, we can see these “pockets” leading up to the fall of the wall. The signs were there: restricted communication, fallout from reform and increasing levels of mistrust.

The signs are not always in the most obvious of places; one of the reasons we value scenario planning to augment forecasting the future.

¹Mary Elise Sarotte is a professor of history at the University of Southern California, a visiting professor at Harvard and the author, most recently, of “The Collapse: The Accidental Opening of the Berlin Wall.”

If you would like to get our monthly enewsletter eSAMI —- please email us at esami@samiconsulting.co.uk

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