Watching the daily news briefings from both sides of the Atlantic it is interesting to observe how often leaders can be trapped by trying to have all the answers. Perhaps it’s not their fault but something in our society’s expectations that leaders will “show us what the ending will be“; “tell us all the steps we need to follow” or "give us a guarantee". As a result, leaders can fear the implications of a “U-turn”.
The reality is that the future is inherently uncertain. This ‘inherent uncertainty’ is as true today as ever with digital disruption and the global challenge of moving to a more sustainable and hopefully circular economy, never mind the seismic impact of COVID-19. But most importantly success in business and innovation comes not from having all the answers, but from managing that uncertainty.
With the rate and types of change we’re experiencing, we are seeing the strategic cycle shrink: our previous “ten-year plans” are now compressed to three-year plans, and in response to the current crisis many companies are focussed on this month. But shorter-term plans shouldn’t mean short term thinking.
An example is how we evaluate sustainability choices. Even for changes that play out over such a long time period, there is complexity. When choosing between energy and waste which is more important? A solution with less CO2 or one that protects biodiversity? The choices are not simply ‘good’ or ‘bad’. And how we evaluate these choices as designers and business leaders today will undoubtedly not be the same as the way customers and our wider society judges them in the future, with the benefit of hindsight.
So, while it is human nature to wish for simple, fixed answers, in the highly changeable and complex conditions we see around us, it may even be dangerous. There are two phrases I keep in mind, from very different sources, when I hear those demands for certainty and guarantees in the news; or from business leaders.
1. The economist John Maynard Keynes is reputed to have said, “When the facts change, I change my mind. What do you do?” This is a critical mindset because it is only by acknowledging that none of us “knows it all" that we can uncover new facts and be open to improving our judgments and how we perform. To tie ourselves irrevocably to something we said previously (or to expect others to) is to value “being right” over “doing wrong”.
Especially now with such considerable disruption and uncertainty, we can’t know where the path will take us at the start of the story. And we shouldn’t try to define the whole journey too soon. As individuals, innovation teams, companies, and society we need to embrace the uncertainty and recognise the path probably isn’t a straight road! But because there aren’t any easy answers, it can sometimes seem like we should do nothing for fear of getting it wrong.
2. And so for the next quote, I turned to a Disney princess: As they say in Frozen 2 (yes, so I’ve got kids…), all we can do is focus on doing “the next right thing”. It might not be perfect, and in the future, we might wish we had known differently, but right now we just need to take the first step.
So don’t be too hard on yourself, or on others to get decision perfectly right the first time. Most decisions can be unwound later and even a “u-turn” is not of itself a bad thing. The only sure thing is that if we do nothing top start-with, we’ll be frozen.