Warm Embrace of Uncertainty

It’s a classic quote, however, in my opinion, we’ve been saying it wrong for years. In fact, 3 things in life are certain: death, taxes and change. What I’m about to tell you is nothing new, so unless you have 10 minutes to kill, go ahead and skip this article; you’ve heard it all before.
And yet you continue to do so little about it.
I feel as though my colleagues and I keep saying the same things over and over again to businesses around the world and yet continue to see the same results. I’m reminded of a classic quote about this practice and am having growing concern for my mental health.
Let’s put our cards on the table; what changes in the business landscape? Technology changes in the blink of an eye. Competitors are constantly emerging with new products. Suppliers seem to always have the latest and greatest solution to our problems. Consumers are constantly looking out for the latest fad or trend. Even governments evolve their regulations and laws (granted often at a snail’s pace).
It feels like everything changes, no? Have things always been this way? Yes and no. In reality, the business world has always been this way; things simply change a lot faster now. Fifty years ago, companies could get away with this kind of laggard stoicism, however, times have changed, the world has accelerated and the old ways don’t cut it anymore. We can’t expect to be operating businesses sustainably using post-WW2 era business strategies.
Here’s a metaphor I’ve been thinking about recently to help reconcile all of this thinking. Imagine, if you will, the business landscape as an ocean (Mauborgne followers are going to love this one). However, instead of trying to find bluer oceans, greener pastures or darker corners to hide within, simply realize that you are sitting in the same big ocean as everyone else. Perhaps years ago, the ocean was calm, however, these days it is a tempestuous body of thrashing waves, strong currents, shifting winds and all kinds of terrors emerging to nip at our feet. The ocean swirls and shifts and swells and sways with all of its might and every coming moment simply brings greater uncertainty and faster change.
Does this sound like the kind of environment you would attempt to erect a building within? A building you say? Of course not! Trying to build such a structure with an ever-shifting foundation would be madness. And yet, each time we as business organizations lay down a strategy for the future, implement a new organizational policy, sign a 5-year rigid contract or build another document template, we are doing just that; starting to pour concrete on a foundation that will inevitably be destroyed before our tower is complete, expecting that this time, things will be different.
Who’s the insane one now?
Instead, this article is a plea for accepting flux; a cry to embrace chaos. You wouldn’t create a building on the water, you would build a boat. You would build a vessel strong enough to withstand the rough waves and howling winds but still nimble enough to move with the current and adapt to the changing ocean. Organizations can be designed as rowboats – quick to change and move with the environment around them – or as aircraft carriers – massive beasts that can overcome some waves and shift with the broader shifting sea. However, what is important is that these designs are always capable of embracing change.
Of course, this can be a daunting, frightening reality to face, particularly for a generation of business women and men who appear to be prone to sea-sickness. If the business landscape is an ocean and our organizations must be boats, then what can we anchor ourselves to? If you truly buy-in to my metaphor, then ideally: nothing. The best organizations in the world are those who approach the world around them like a whitewater kayak – eager to hit the next wave and constantly paddling to guide a safe line through a current that is going to take them forward, regardless of what they do.
Realizing that some companies would love to have something to hang their hats on, there is always an opportunity for mooring up. Decades ago, technology was a decent anchor as it evolved and changed roughly at the same pace as organizational change and product cycles. In this day and age, perhaps the most static touch point in business is human need. While the way in which we consume products and services is changing, the basic necessities we fulfill are still evolving quite slowly.

However, what is essential is that we never drop anchor in any one place for too long, lest we risk becoming a giant heap of rusting steel, waiting for the day when the hull begins to breach and the ocean swallows us up like so many before.