Time to throw out the crystal ball

I enjoy reading HBR article’s and find that the majority are well written, the point argued with relevant and compelling examples and case study’s, leaving the reader feeling as though they have something to take away from the investment of their time reading the article. However, sometimes there are headlines that catch your attention and you look forward to what promises to be some enlightened wisdom, yet are sadly disappointed. In some cases the advice is self-serving for the author with no semblance of relativity to the real world, as was the case with an article regarding leaders and decision making I read recently.

Decision making in the modern day business has changed as much as technology over the past decade and a half. This article would never have been published if it was a tech article in a tech publication, as it was pretty much saying that the analogue phone is the best communication device to meet modern demands.

However, to cut the author some slack this line is a bit of a clue as to where collective thinking still is with decision making:

“In today’s complex, fluid, interdependent world, none of us can predict the future with total accuracy”

None of us can predict the future with total accuracy?

Isn’t the very nature of uncertainty – unpredictability?

I was floored with this statement and realised that we have a long way to go in getting ‘comfortable’ with uncertainly. We are still so entrenched in industrial age thinking with business decision making and how it should work. In the industrial age things moved slowly and tried and tested methods of ‘predicting’ likely scenario’s with market and customer behaviours usually worked a treat to ‘assure’ business decision makers that they would ‘get it right’. Not so now, nor for the past 10+ years – so why on earth are we still finding ‘advice’ in one of the most reputable business journals globally, straight out of the ‘olden days’. I worked through the ‘baby bathwater’ thing with this article thinking perhaps there are some ageless gems in here, sadly lacking.

The other thing is that we still think far too long term with decisions – another relic of the industrial age, that is still stuck in the business psyche. Getting back to the obvious in our VUCA world – compromised ‘future predictability’ – why is it we seemingly deny this and continually ‘fight for certainty’?

So how do we get more comfortable with uncertainty?

We have to change our expectations, get rid fear of getting it wrong, and find a new way. Changing expectations is the easy part – face reality. We all know that in a customer driven world the ‘control baton’ is no longer in the hands of businesses – this is not such a scary concept. Fear of getting it wrong – this is another relic of industrial age business structures and thinking where people were ‘engaged’ on a time based model with outputs to be achieved and failure to do so was met with punitive measures meant to control and standardise output. How to overcome this? Shift to output based work practices which will radically reduce error rates by default.

The second part of ‘fear of getting it wrong’ permeates the cultures of most of our organisations – from workers at the front line to top decision makers, and requires a whole new way of thinking and behaving. Fear of getting it wrong at its core is a desire to be ‘in control’ – a natural and instinctive human behaviour. The irony is that this ‘fear feeds itself’ and the more things speed up and become uncertain, the ‘reaction’ is fear largely of loss of control (primal animal thing – that BTW, we humans are). Decision making is compromised as we are not designed to make decision’s when in fear mode. Not only are we likely to make ‘reactive decisions’, but the process of decision making is stalled in the fear state’ – think of the rabbit in the headlights of the car – they freeze.

The learned gentleman who wrote the HRB article suggested his 20+ year old formula or ‘script’ was the panacea for making decisions when under pressure. There is an absence of ‘cognition’ and rational thinking in the fear/pressured state, so an industrial age ‘script’ is like handing a person having a heart attack a book about healthy living – won’t work so well. To deal with the ‘fear’ and pressure – again two things. The first is to ‘let go’ of this unrealistic, redundant need to have control over the future. We don’t know what will happen tomorrow or next week or next year. This will do incredible things to our mental mind state. People will be free and relaxed with open flowing minds.

This leads me to part two – when are minds are ‘free, aware and open’ we can make decisions and moreover they will be good decisions, the best for the moment. A remarkable thing occurs when our mindspace is freed up. We engage our whole intelligence, we see what is in front of us, we evaluate it from our past experiences and learning’s, we compare it to new things we may have read about or heard about (they do get stored), and we make an informed, intelligent and the most accurate decision for that moment.

The irony is that the world moves so fast and the scenario where that decision was made will most likely change within a short period of time. So the decision is adjusted and adapted to meet this new scenario – and it will be the right for a short time only, until the next change occurs.

This type of thinking and decision making is for want of a better term ‘just in time’ decision making – where the decision is made for now, with full knowledge that there will need to be an adjustment really soon as things move in our fluid world. This process works a treat with the right ‘people data’ systems in place – the right information at the right time to know what to do.

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