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Business has gotten to be quite accomplished at dealing with a predictable universe. Corporate chieftains and strategists have sussed out most of the relevant laws that govern this universe and learned how to profitably apply them.
But that universe is a thing of the past. We now live in a volatile marketplace where uncertainty rules and disruptive technologies are the order of the day. In this world, the old laws no longer apply. Success is no longer a fixed point; it's becoming a moving target. Certainty is yesterday's news.
Serial entrepreneurs are the one business cohort that has learned how to thrive in this quicksilver world. Their success is predicated on a bias toward action over prolonged analysis; they've made "Act, Learn, Build, so you can Act again" their mantra.
Success, they believe, is iterative.
This brave new world of business is dissected and translated into actionable strategy and tactics in "Just Start: Take Action, Embrace Uncertainty, Create the Future" (Harvard Business Review Press, 2012) by Babson College President Leonard Schlesinger, organization learning expert Charles Kiefer and veteran journalist and author Paul B. Brown.
Brown recently gave BusinessNewsDaily a guided tour of the highways and byways of this uncertain world.
BusinessNewsDaily: How has uncertainty about the future changed the way organizations and individuals need to think and act? Is this new paradigm all-encompassing?
Paul B. Brown: From kindergarten on, we’ve learned prediction reasoning — a way of thinking based on the assumption that the future is going to be pretty much like the past.
We have gotten really good at prediction. It allows us to do wondrous things.
Because it works so well, we (like you) became accustomed to using prediction all the time. And like anything, if you do something over and over, it becomes a habit. Your view of the world becomes conditioned.
And yet, not everything can be foreseen (and thus predicted). Need to know if the town council is going to go for your idea of turning Main Street into a pedestrian mall before you spend your nights and weekends working on the project? Prediction is of little use. Is the world ready for your brand new, never before seen, product or service? That’s another place prediction really does you no good.
The central point is, when the future is unknowable, we need a new way of thinking.And yes, people need this new way of thinking everywhere.
BND: What are the best strategy and tactics to deploy when the future is uncertain?
PBB: Do what successful serial entrepreneurs do.
When people write about entrepreneurs, they invariably focus on their behavior: what Howard Schultz or Michael Dell did in building their companies. If you take that approach you probably would conclude that every single entrepreneur is unique, and so there is little to be learned from studying them; you would have to be Howard Schultz to start Starbucks and Michael Dell to start Dell.
But look at what happens if you look at the way they think, instead of just studying their actions.
In the face of an unknown future, they act. Act. Learn. Build. Repeat. That is how you deal with an uncertain world.
BND: Is the danger of analysis paralysis always lurking in the organization and management thought?
PBB: Yes, because they are so accustomed to prediction reasoning. And as we seen there are certain situations — introducing a brand-new product (a polo shirt with three-quarter sleeves) into a brand-new market (a place where you have never sold polo shirts) — where Prediction Reasoning won’t help.
PBB: There’s a reason that seasoned entrepreneurs don’t think of themselves as risk takers, even though everyone else does. They have developed terrific ways to limit potential losses as they start a new venture.BND: How can we minimize risk and cost in making decisions?
That fact surprises many people because if you read the popular press, you might well think that successful entrepreneurs love risk. Faced with the edge of a cliff, according to media accounts, they would prefer jumping off with a homemade parachute made of bed sheets to finding another way safely down.
That’s simply not true. They like ropes and harnesses! More specifically, they prefer measured steps as they head off into the unknown and try to start their new venture. They don’t like risk. They accept it as part of the game and then work extremely hard to reduce it to a minimum.
BND: What is the best way to attract and retain like-minded people?
PBB: The first thing to do is YOU must be excited about your idea. If you aren’t, you can’t expect anyone else to be.
Then, share what you have. Tell people why you are excited. And also tell them about the potential pitfalls.
Finally, ask if they want to contribute in some way. Maybe it is joining you. Maybe it is spreading the word. But you want them to "enroll" in what you are doing. You don’t want to sell them on the idea.
BND: Explain "CreAction." What is it, what can it do and why is it essential?
PBB: CreAction is a word we made up by combining “creation” with “action.” CreAction boils down to this: The future may or may not be like the past, but you don’t have to spend a lot of time wondering how it will play out if you plan to shape (i.e., create) it.
BND: How do you foster CreAction within an organization?
PBB: The learning has to occur on both the individual (i.e., you) and organizational level (your boss, peers, subordinates).
Simply through your own thinking, and getting other people to think differently, you can have enormous impact without changing anything.
The second kind is an organizational learning. You ask: How do I make the organization open to CreAction? What do I need to do to convince people that an additional way of thinking could be helpful, and that it should be a tool we should employ under the right circumstances?
No two organizations are exactly the same, so what works well in one will not necessary work in another. We’re dealing with something that is essentially a creative act, and consequently each organization has to handle it in its own unique way. If the company looks to adopt another company’s version, it’s because it’s leaning right back into predictive thinking, i.e., "if I imitate them somehow, it will be good for me."
You can learn from what others have done, but you can’t adopt their methods completely. You need to put your own spin on it.
Reach BusinessNewsDaily senior writer Ned Smith at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @nedbsmith.