The Cone of Plausibility UP061

The cone of plausibility is meant to graphically represent the relationship between the present moment in time and the certainty of our knowledge about future events. It provides a useful visual heuristic for planners looking into the future. But as the diagram depicts, the further into the future we seek to plan, the greater the number of possible events.

This first public mention of the “cone of plausibility” was by Charles Taylor in 1988 to illustrate the geopolitical scenarios he posed in Alternative World Scenarios for Strategic Planning (Carlisle Barracks: Strategic Studies Institute). Since Taylor’s initial development of a scenarios cone, or “cone of plausibility,” many simplified and modern alternatives have been developed by futurists including Trevor Hancock, Clement Bezold and Joseph Voros. 

Insights for strategic planning from the cone of plausibility

  1. While the ‘probable future’ is only one of many possible futures, it is identifiably the one future that most people in an industry or firm tacitly and expressly agree is likely to happen. The probable future is what would occur if current patterns and trends continued without intervention or unexpected influence.
  2. Although the ‘probable future’ is the likely course of events, planners who focus future preparations solely on this version of the future may be in for a shock when unexpected developments unfold. It is therefore wise in strategic planning to recognize that the firm’s shared view of the probable future is just that–a shared view. This consciousness around the probable future opens a space for discussions of what may not be probable, but could happen and deserves consideration.
  3. Futurists use the concept of ‘preferable futures’ as a reminder that people have agency, if not total control, over how the future unfolds. As you can see in the image of the cone of plausibility, the preferable future lies at the border of the plausible future. Firms that seek to enhance their competitive advantage look in this outer ‘ring’ for opportunities that others may not see.
  4. The concept of ‘possible futures’ refers to the outer limit of what can happen within the constraints of the physical laws of the universe. However, many of these scenarios are not really plausible, barring nearly magical or catastrophic events. The ‘plausible future’ falls between all of the nearly infinite possible futures that could unfold and the narrow contours of the probable future.