Picture this: Peter Rodriguez, Marc Lipson, and I are taking a cab from a hotel to the airport. It is 5:15 a.m. Place: Singapore. Conditions: a torrential downpour with ample amounts of thunder and lightning-a typical equatorial storm. The cab driver is hastening along an expressway; the cab hydroplanes through flooded sections. Suddenly the cab bumps and lurches. The driver mutters something about snakes in the road. This makes the three of us look up from our cell phones. Lipson: “Did you say snakes?” Driver (totally blasé): “Yes, pythons come up out of the swamps to the high ground on the road. Sometimes iguanas.” This was a new experience. I’ve heard of armadillos on roads in Texas, bears in Yellowstone Park, and alligators in the Gulf Coast states. But this was a major metropolitan area. And your reticulated python of Southeast Asia can grow to 33 feet in length and 300 pounds-one of these items wouldn’t simply slow down the traffic, it would own the road.

The issue of unexpected bumps in the road is on my mind for two reasons. First, Darden is about to graduate its MBA Class of 2009, a group of students that applied and enrolled when the business outlook was buoyant, if not “irrationally exuberant” (to borrow a phrase from Alan Greenspan). Over the ensuing two years, it experienced a dramatic change in expectations. More than just a bump in the road; more like a python.

Second, I’ve just reviewed What Matters? Ten Questions that will Shape Our Future, a special report by McKinsey and Company. Just when you hoped conditions would settle down, the report replies, “not so fast…” It surveys ten of the most pressing problems-pythons, so to speak-and offers commentaries on each that range from reassuring to alarming. The wide variance in outlook underscores the remark by Niels Bohr that “Prediction is very difficult, especially if it’s about the future.” The ten pythons are these:

  1. Credit crisis. What will the lessons be from the great credit crisis of 2008?
  2. Climate change. What is the most rational way to deal with the impact of climate change?
  3. Innovation. Where will the world’s primary centers of innovation be?
  4. Geopolitics. It’s the year 2040. What does the geopolitical landscape look like?
  5. Organization. How will business organizations change in the 21st Century?
  6. Energy. What replaces oil, and when?
  7. Internet. In less than 20 years, the Internet has transformed the way we shop, socialize, and communicate. What’s next?
  8. Health care. Is it possible to provide adequate health care for all? If not, what gives?
  9. Globalization. Will the world be more tightly bound together 20 years from now, or less?
  10. Biotechnology. Biotech promises to crack the code of life. How will those advances change the world in the years ahead?

The discussions in these ten areas are stimulating. Plainly the new generation of managers faces a load of challenges and opportunities. The road looks bumpy ahead. I wish our new graduates a firm hand on the wheel.

The rest of the story: Python or not, our driver in Singapore just kept driving. In a world of turbulence, keep focused on your destination.