Updated: Jul 16, 2022
by Ulises Pabon
photo by Katie Moum www.katiemoum.com || www.finaldraftstudios.com
“Given today’s uncertainty, it makes no sense to look ten years ahead; not in our industry”.
This has become a universal mantra among managers and business owners, no matter the industry. The comment is understandable.
Since the outbreak of COVID-19, we’ve been on a roller coaster ride. From disruptions in the supply chain to the Great Resignation. From spiraling inflation to the outbreak of war in Ukraine. It seems as if uncertainty is at an all-time high.
Uncertainty hampers our ability to envision the future. And when we can’t see forward, like driving in the fog, we slow down and focus on what’s immediately in front of us. Managing the present - the next 12 to 18 months or so - takes precedence over creating the future - looking 5 to 10 years ahead.
In times of ambiguity and uncertainty, we think that focusing on the present and sticking with the status quo is safe. It isn’t.
Why? Two reasons.
First, sticking to what we already know is the antithesis of learning. And the willingness to experiment and learn is precisely what you need when facing uncertainty.
Second, recycling what we’ve always done is the antithesis of improvement. You don’t need a leader to maintain the status quo; a bureaucrat, perhaps, but not a leader. To change the status quo and to create the future, leadership is essential.
So, the counterintuitive answer to uncertainty is this: deviate from the status quo, accelerate learning, and dare to invent the future.
This isn't a call for irresponsibility and callousness. The idea is not to close your eyes, floor the gas pedal, and accelerate into the fog. Plainly put, that would be stupid.
It's a call against analysis paralysis. It's a call against believing that you are "playing it safe" when in reality you are risking it all. It's a call against freezing, like a deer transfixed by a car's headlights.
Sticking to what we already know is the antithesis of learning. Recycling what we've always done is the antithesis of improvement.
What can you do, then, when the temptation to stick with the tried and true is strong?
For starters, welcome experimentation... structured experimentation. Venture to try new things. But before you do, think about the results you expect to achieve. If you don't have a hypothesis, you aren't experimenting, you're guessing. Learning can only happen when you reflect on what you expected and on what actually happened.
Second, accelerate learning. Activate your sensory acuity. See more, hear more, and feel more. Broaden your radar screen and connect the dots. Leave your office and your spreadsheet and reach out to employees, customers, suppliers, colleagues, and friends. Observe attentively and truly listen to others. Find fresh inspiration in the challenges people face.
Third, use the power of pilots and prototypes to create the future. Don't let uncertainty freeze you. Decide contingently. Nurture reversible options. You don't need to "bet the farm" to move forward. Learn to bet small. Bold solutions don't require outsized risks.
Think about an unknown in your business space. What experiment would you design if you only had a budget of $500 and a week to get it done? Rather than stifle creativity, constraints can boost it. Don't give up on this challenge. Use it as mental calisthenics to get you thinking about actions you can take to dissipate the fog that's holding you back from creating the future.
We tend to associate the term pioneer with risk. Venturing out into the unknown - whether it's in the 18th century Wild West or in the 21st-century outer space - triggers fears and concerns. But we seldom associate risk with the settlers - those that follow in the steps of the pioneers and travel in the "safety" of their findings.
Truth be told, behaving like a follower entails a higher risk than that of a pioneer. If you wait for uncertainty to settle, for ambiguity to dissipate, and for the fog to clear, you've waited too long. You will find that your value proposition has become irrelevant and that your business model has become obsolete.
Don't let the uncertainty and ambiguity of the future paralyze you. Don't let the lure of sticking to the status quo blind you. Step out of your comfort zone and dare to create the future. Escape the forces that tie you to the present and blaze a bold path. It doesn't matter what industry you are in, dare to look a decade ahead. Use agility, flexibility, and learning as antidotes to uncertainty.
Stop thinking about the future as something that happens. The future is shaped. By whom? By anyone with the willingness to embrace the gap between what is and what can be and the courage to plow forward.
You have two jobs to do: manage the present and create the future. What are you waiting for?