The Warm Embrace of Uncertainty

“The only things certain in life are death and taxes.” It’s a classic quote, but, in my opinion, it’s a false one. There are, in fact, three things in life that are certain: death, taxes and change. Yet no matter how frequently we in the innovation game push businesses to awaken to this reality, we continue to be met with the same, apathetic results. I’m reminded of another classic quote regarding the definition of the term ‘insanity’ and am having growing concern for the state of my mental health.

To stave off my descent into madness, I’ve been thinking about a metaphor to help reconcile the thinking around business and change. Imagine, if you will, the business landscape as an ocean (Mauborgne followers are going to love this one) and imagine you and your organization sitting within the same big ocean as everyone else. Once, perhaps, the ocean was calm, but 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 erect a building within? Of course not! Trying to build on an ever-shifting foundation would be madness. And yet, each time business organizations lay down a strategy for the future, implement a new organizational policy, or sign a rigid five-year contract, we are doing just that; pouring concrete on a foundation that will inevitably be destroyed before our tower is complete, expecting that this time, things will be different.

Who’s insane now?

This is a plea to begin to accept flux, a cry to embrace chaos. You wouldn’t build a building on water, but 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 could be designed as rowboats are – quick to change and move a few passengers with the environment around them – or as aircraft carriers – massive beasts that require a sizeable crew to steer  through waves and move with the broader shifting sea. What is important is that, regardless of size or complexity, these designs are always capable of embracing change.

What changes in the business landscape? Technology changes faster than we can adapt to it. 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 eventually.

This is a plea to begin to accept flux, a cry to embrace chaos.

Fifty years ago, companies could get away with laggard stoicism, but the world has accelerated and the old ways don’t cut it anymore. We can’t expect to be operating businesses sustainably using post-war era business strategies.

This can be a daunting, frightening reality to face, particularly for a generation that appears to be prone to seasickness. If you truly buy in to the metaphor that the business landscape is an ocean and our organizations are boats, what can we anchor ourselves to? Sadly, the answer may be nothing. The best organizations in the world are those who approach the world around them like a whitewater kayaker would – 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 hold on to, there is always an opportunity for mooring up. Decades ago, technology was a decent anchor as it evolved roughly at the same pace as organizational change and product cycles. Today, perhaps the most static touch point in business is human need. While the ways we consume products and services are changing, the basic necessities we fulfill are evolving slowly, if at all.

Perhaps most importantly, it is essential that we never drop anchor in any one place for too long. We must continue to drift along with the shifting seas lest we risk becoming a giant heap of rusting steel, waiting for the day when the hull breaches and the ocean swallows us up like so many before.

the author

Shane Saunderson

Shane Saunderson is VP, IC/Things at Idea Couture. See his full bio here.