I was watching a poorly done movie about a viral outbreak today – I don’t even remember the title, though it ended twenty minutes ago – and as my mind wandered, I started thinking about strategic planning.
Wait, that’s not as weird as you think.
When I finished graduate school, I went to work for IBM. I hated working for IBM, which shouldn’t surprise any of my fellow writers, but their classes were incredible. One such boondoggle class was a Strategic Planning course that was administered in Santa Clara, California. That’s right, a week on the west coast, drinking my way through all the cool bars with work colleagues, and hanging out in San Francisco. The excesses of the 1980s were awesome.
In any case, the class turned out to be the most valuable thing I was ever taught, outside of algebra. (I don’t count reading or writing because I taught myself those.) The key piece to the course was a simple device called an “event wheel.” Essentially, the event wheel is a device that allows you to map out an event and find out what secondary, tertiary, and even quaternary events happen as a result. Even better, it can be done with tools as simple as a pencil and a big piece of paper.
To begin, simply map out an event – here, an outbreak of a new, highly contagious virus with a high mortality rate. The first set of rings – in green in the diagram – are the primary effects of the event. These will be easy to see, in most cases. They can be as simple as cause and effect of a routine event (accident causes injury) or, as in this case, descriptions of the event.
In our viral outbreak, the victim is unaware. She is on travel when she encounters the virus. Further, unlike influenza, wherein victims are contagious for one day prior to symptoms arising, our virus has a 5-day window where the victim is contagious, but shows no symptoms of the disease. This is where the power of the tool begins to show itself.
After mapping out the immediate (fewer than 10) “event attributes,” we begin to see how the primary event begins to run its course. The 5-day contagion leads to the victim infecting all those who have close contact with her for a full work week. Her lack of symptoms means she plays out her normal life, spreading the virus faster. Everyone in her life is effected, her loved ones most of all. She’s a traveler, perhaps on a business sales jaunt through Paris, Brussels, Vienna, and Rome, taking the disease with her. These are the secondary effects.
Most of these will be things you can think of without the tool. However, you may find, even here, things that would have never connected to the event. The next step is where it gets fun. Each secondary and tertiary effect is an event unto itself. A single point on the wheel could launch an entire chain of events.
For instance, given the disease spreads rapidly and mortality is high, the Government will need to step in to ensure the safety of innocents, and to prevent chaos. A sure outcome of that single step will be that those who are naturally distrustful of government become paranoid. These “Grassy Knollers” will introduce conspiracy theories to explain how things could have gone wrong so fast. And these theories are in themselves a new string of events.
As a writer, for instance, what if you decide the crazy theory – that the Government created the virus as a biological weapon – was reality? Or, perhaps the focus of your story isn’t on the virus. It’s been done to death – who cares?
But maybe you are focused on what happens – out there in the red, tertiary effects – when people realize their friend, wife, and co-worker could be sick, and they would never know right until they got sick themselves? How rapidly, and in what way does society crumble if no one can trust anyone else? What if the virus stabilizes, but it lingers, always a threat? Would society, out in the fourth wheel of your imagination, become hermits who never leave home, dealing with each other through the virtual world?
It’s fun to think of.
Now, I know there are still skeptics. You’re thinking, “Big deal, I can do that in my head.” It’s true, and with practice, you will. But would you remember it? Would you remember which events cause what effects? With the event wheel, you can.
Here’s another innocuous one.
Someone invents the most powerful computer known to man. It is linked to satellite technology that brings 3-D, virtualization right into your home. If you can imagine it, the computer can make it real. Okay, normal Sci-fi stuff, right? Sure, but what about all the stuff that goes with it? How do you do the world building you need to make the story viable?
As you lay out your wheel of effects of this “most powerful computer” one of your primary effects will be “takes a shitload of energy” or words to that effect. Ever known new technology that doesn’t run on some kind of power? Well, the event wheel’s next steps will include “society quickly runs out of power,” “electricity becomes super expensive,” and “new power sources are sought.” Or maybe you deviate into “energy becomes a tradable, black-market commodity,” or “government outlaws the technology to save a world from the mind-fuck of virtualization.”
Maybe society splits, somewhere in the third wheel, into those who spend all their money on tech and energy, and those who reject tech completely because they can no longer even afford to light their homes.
Consider the event wheel; you’ll be surprised where it leads you. After all, when the manufacturers of buggy whips saw the horseless carriage come along, none of them used this tool to predict their product line would be obsolete, did they? If they did, you’d see them manufacturing leather car seats now.
See the future. It’s as easy as seeing the past.