Beyond Certainty

Certainty is often quoted as the lifeblood of markets. The dictionary defines certain as “free from doubt or reservation; confident; sure”.

In todays conditions however, most of what we deal with has a very short time horizon. Certainty is difficult, if not just illusory.

When I went to University and started my career (not just pre internet, in the age of emerging fax) the time horizon was longer, or so we thought. A good degree and a good employer offered a relatively risk free route via good salary to a good pension. In my own case, it was an RAF scholarship, which was all of these, only more so. I had in effect a fixed 38 year contract. Attractive in concept, I lasted nine years. Curiosity and compliance do not make comfortable companions.

I have spent the rest of my business career in conditions of serial uncertainty – in corporates starting new ventures or recovering failed ones, then in private businesses in UK and Europe doing much the same, for the last ten years doing the same with my own businesses. Along the way, it has encompassed great success and painful failure, but on average has been very good. Which says everything about the descriptive power of averages.

What made it work for me were the things I was certain in. My spouse (who has been there from the beginning), my family, friends, and a determination only to work for things, and with people, I believed worthwhile. (for sake of clarity, not all of it. There was an interesting period of a couple years where I compromised this – making me determined never to do it again)

What I recognize in retrospect was the power of what Jonathan Fields calls in his book “Uncertainty”; “certainty anchors”. If we accept that most of what goes on around us is inherently uncertain, we need to create areas where we are certain. They can, if we are lucky, be the big things but can equally be something as simple as going for a walk at the same time each day, meditation for a few minutes each morning, following a football team (I do the first two, but not the last. I live in Derby and the pressure is too much). For a business, it might be monthly non agenda-driven get togethers or an adopted charity. These “certainty anchors’ give us a place to stand, and deal with most uncertainty for what it is – “noise” rather than signal.

Market conditions of uncertainty are a great platform for growth. Big, established companies are much more vulnerable to uncertainty, and have a lot of mouths to feed from staff to shareholders, making them less resilient than smaller nimbler companies. The “Status quo” has a far shorter life, and technology is ensuring the resources gap between large and small businesses is reducing quickly.

The most powerful unit of change today is small, dedicated teams (research suggests less than twenty) who share a common purpose, a sense of humour and who can create their own “certainty platforms” to deal with the conditions they face. They can exist anywhere, from start ups to corporates. They are “talent magnets”, flexible, and have, as we shall see in future posts, all the critical ingredients for achieving success in uncertain conditions.

Structuring and leading to exploit uncertainty is a huge opportunity. We can all do it; if we choose.

 

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