Not Knowing – a critical business skill

There’s an interesting, and I think important theme emerging. As we tiptoe out of the caution of the last seven years, and entertain the idea of ambitious business growth, rather than survival and incremental growth, the rules have changed.

We are discovering the limitations of expertise.

Expertise and knowledge are great in relatively static conditions, and we come to rely on the “schemata” – ways of thinking, built on experience, that govern what we take notice of. Expertise gets us promoted, makes our businesses work and allows us to train people to do things. And that is now a problem.

Almost all of the clients I work with are trying to deal with a paradox. How do they make the most of today, knowing that it is becoming obsolescent – but not knowing with any precision what is coming next.

We like certainty (uncertainty, unless it’s nature is properly understood, generated the same reactions as fear), but in order to thrive tomorrow we need to develop confidence in “Not Knowing”. (If you want more, Google “Flawed but Willing” by Khurshed Dehnugara, and “Not Knowing” by D’Souza)

When we can lean into not knowing, we can lose the fear of being wrong, and fully engage the real capabilities we need going forward – imagination, creativity and collaboration. We can find allies in adjacent areas. We can reimagine.

“Experts” are useful for what you do today, but a liability if they are relied on to guide you into tomorrow. they don’t know either. Your best guide to tomorrow is you.

We are in the middle of massive change that will see that majority of routine accounting, legal, insurance and medical skills replaced by technology. Accountants, Lawyers and the rest will not disappear – we’ll just need fewer of them, with deeper understanding of and imagination regarding the field.

Success tomorrow will be driven by real purpose, joy in what we do, creativity, and the ability to imagine and explore with the confidence of a four year old.

At GrowHouse, we are working with clients on how to explore and profitably occupy this emerging territory. If you’d like information mail me richard.merrick@growhouseinitiative.uk  and we can talk more.

Playing what isn’t there

Miles Davis created his unique sound by “playing what wasn’t there”. He had an approach that used notes as signposts, not as instructions.

In the industrial economy, we played the notes. A whole industry was developed creating business plans, business qualifications, and consulting offers based around this approach. It worked really well as long as the assumptions that they were based on – replicability, repeatability, and the mantra of volume, scale and market share held true.

But increasingly, it doesn’t any longer.

We have seen exemplars of failure from Kodak to Borders, and more recently the iconic Radio Shack. They were all playing the notes, but increasingly, no-one was listening.

As the orthodoxies of the industrial economy gives way to the constructive chaos of the connection economy we need different skills. Less orchestra, more Miles Davis. More curiosity, less compliance.

There are a number of trends emerging that will accelerate the rate of change:

1. What can be automated, will be. The rise and rise on intelligent algorithms replacing jobs, professions, departments, and even whole businesses. Anything that can be reduced to a process. Computers just don’t care how complex the process is, and smart people can write the algorithms.

2. The obvious foundation of any business in a connection economy is people – not as labour, but as creators. The balance of power is shifting away from organisations and towards individuals and groups. People are looking for organisations that help them create what they are driven to create, no longer just as “jobs”.

3. Medium sized businesses are likely to become the powerhouses. Big enough to matter, small enough to be flexible, and more likely to have people in them – owners and members – with real “agency”. A sense of place, purpose and ownership, and without the sea anchors of demanding shareholders with limited agendas.

4. Old labels – from “talent” to “innovation” and “sectors” are less and less useful. The nature of the changes taking place are too complex for them to be useful. Some of the major changes taking place are happening across entire industries, creating whole new concepts and linking people and ideas in whole new ways. Here are four of the top 12 (thanks to Roger James Hamilton)

– Digital currencies

– Crowdsourcing and crowdfunding

– Materialisation – 3D printing

– Virtual reality – gamified connection.

The combination of all these trends is creating a chaotic environment full of opportunity. with new rules:

– To paraphrase the conventional wisdom of politics – “It’s the people, stupid!” Connection and technology can realise peoples ideas, but it can’t create them. Although qualifications and experience still count, they are no longer the currency of success. Creativity and connection are.

– Business plans are still useful, but no guarantee of success. They are a reference point at a given moment in time, and no more. Awareness, adaption and improvisation on the move – the  characteristics of effectual thinking are key, as against the causal thinking that has dominated our business education and training for so long.

– Communities of purpose – groups of people with shared values in pursuit of common goals – is the new scale. Whether as small businesses, or small teams within corporates – they are where the leverage is. The job of the organisation is becoming one of supporting and getting out of the way.

So, in the middle of all this – the good, no, the great, news is that you as an individual have never been so important or so empowered if you choose to be.

It requires two things – pursuing something important, a job as a means to an end rather than an end in itself, and secondly, self belief and self development – constant learning. Genius is another one of those redundant labels – we all have aspects of genius within us, but it won’t show itself unless you give it the room.

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.