Where Do We Start When So-Much-Is-Happening-All-At-Once?

Companies have been punched in the mouth, and whether they had or did not have a plan, it’s time for a new one. And not just a plan to deal with this or other viruses, but a completely reconsidered society.

Stowe Boyd

We exist at a time that has competing, intersecting, and sometimes conflicting crises.

This is leaving companies reeling as they attempt to recover from one blow after another. Innovation, or even continuous improvement, doesn’t really appear at the table.

I was involved in a discussion this week about dealing with the cost of living crisis. But of course it’s too late to deal with, it’s upon us and over us. I remarked , not particularly helpfully, to this effect. That the problem we were attempting to solve was unsolvable , it was upon us. Maybe we’d be best to prepare for the next crisis wave that we probably hadn’t even considered yet.

How can companies regain their footing? Even in more stable times it’s not as if organisations were particularly adept at preparing for looming threats.

A report by Dr Deborah Pretty analyses data from 300 corporate crises from the last 40 years . It categorises crises into three sorts and examines their impact on shareholder value while identifying the drivers of recovery.

  • Black Swan events (unprecedented, unimagined e.g World War I)
  • Grey Swan events (conceivable but neglected e.g Covid-19)
  • White Swan events (reasonable frequency, inherently preventable e.g most of the things that have happened to your company in the past 12 months)

The report highlights that limited, ambiguous and uncomfortable data are easy to ignore. We neglect preparing for low-probability, high-severity events. They are on the horizon but we simply don’t think preparing for them is a priority.

When the timing of a looming threat is uncertain, it’s hard for business leaders to make an action plan to address it.  Wharton marketing professor emeritus George Day and global management consultant Roger Dennis call it “the paradox of preparedness.” 

They suggest four stages of awareness: learning from past experience, staying alert to anomalies, creating engaging experiences through simulations, and narrating credible stories about the future. 

One of the problems at the moment is companies are (necessarily) operating in the moment with such intensity that they can’t see out of the building never mind look over the horizon.

It’s what Stowe Boyd has neatly titled The Fog of So-Much-Happening-All-at-Once.

To navigate out of this fog, we must live with two sets of values simultaneously.

We need to cope with the present and to get ahead of the next knockout blow – and that requires different skill sets, different people and different organisational design. Ambidexterity is a combination of two conflicting behaviours, such as exploration and exploitation.

What often happens is organisations confuse these two things. As Victor W. Hwang has written – the values are opposed. Successful companies often need to exist in both worlds—innovation and production simultaneously – and that’s hard to do.

Think about it – your organisation will have a generic set of values , or a DNA, the thing you talk about as culture. It’s generic and quite bland as you don’t want to leave anybody out or create any conflict. And that’s part of the problem – because the conflict is the solution.

It’s worth remembering that our organisations are generally bad at anticipating the future simply because they are designed that way.

What we need to do as organisations is to create the conditions for these two sets of values to co-exist.

Becoming Ambidextrous

Just as being ambidextrous means being able to use both the left and right hand equally, organizational ambidexterity requires organizations to use both exploration and exploitation techniques to be successful.

This may need:

  • A space (literal or metaphorical) to translate thinking into practical applications – and to ensure that any ideas that are pursued connect with the organisation’s overall strategy.
  • Bringing people -not the usual suspects – together to conceive, champion, and carefully develop new approaches that have not been tried before.
  • Acting as a conduit with external bodies, individuals and ideas outside your organisation – a pressure chamber that allows these external influences to flourish in a safe and controlled way.
  • Using a mix of methodologies including design thinking and prototyping to help visualise solutions, and not talk ourselves out of change where it appears too difficult or complex.

Most organisations create strategies that deal with yesterday’s problems (check your KPIs for proof). Now more than ever we must develop the capability to gaze forward.

What is that low-probability, high-severity event that is coming your companies way?

Photo by Katie Moum on Unsplash


4 responses to “Where Do We Start When So-Much-Is-Happening-All-At-Once?”

  1. Mike Weston

    Your site always interests me and always amazes me how unknowledgeable clever successful people can be.

    Some thoughts on apparent success.

    I offer one example.

    The domestic energy business seems to be controlled by a group of like minded individuals who saw a niche and attempted via the use of ” accountants to fill it”.
    The formula in simple terms was let’s pinch all the customers by offering what seems like the cheapest deal.

    Then the reality set in.

    No body looked at the regular customer.

    The young just followed the herd and bought cheap to find themselves tied into a so called bargain based on taking your money up front on direct debits or via pre payment meters. The day of reckoning has arrived. New direct debits at unbelievable levels. This occurs when mortgage rates are going to double ,triple or go higher.

    The more cautious of us saw the faults and looked for stable secure providers.

    Turns out we had been wise to stay on Quarterly billing based on usage but events overtook us.

    The magic formula being used by the now few remaining suppliers is attempt to bamboozle the sudden captured customer . That’s many millions of us .

    The websites and marketing suggests we can all retain the service we had and the type of accounts we had.

    The reality is we have to fight all the way with total indifference from the supplier.

    The companies , with rare exceptions , are not profitable, but many are led by wealthy CEO’s who have become wealthy from this shambles. Even the failed companies never seem to have difficulties in being extremely well paid.

    What common factors do I see in the above and so many organisations across the board?

    The customer is now just part of the supply chain.

    The customers wishes are ignored and the accountants complain the customer does not do what is best for the company.

    Forget about what the customer wanted.

    I can go on.

    Have I touched a nerve?

    Does anyone care ?

    Tomorrow is , like the past, a different world.

    What remains the same is the opportunity for those willing to become a business serving the needs of the customer.

    I guess all the meetings in the world will be a waste of time if the agenda is about saving the organisation.

    Retired , confused salesman.

    1. Thanks Mike for your thoughtful comments as ever! I think more than a few of us are confused

  2. Thanks, Paul, for sharing this.
    It’s like the “chance of rain” percentage on the weather forecast. Let’s say it’s shown as 10% likelihood of rain between 9:00am and 10:00am. Most people think that means that there is only a one in ten chance it will rain, but it actually means that for any moment in that period, there is a 10% chance it will be raining, so the most likely outcome is that it will rain for six minutes during the one-hour period. Now let’s say there is a 10% chance of rain for ten hours, between 9:00am and 7:00pm. That means the most likely outcome is that it will rain in total for one hour during that period, and the likelihood of there being any rain is close to 100%. It feels like a lot of people and organisations plan for crises in this way, by setting out a plan that is guaranteed to work, unless it “rains” (e.g. fuel prices going up) and assume that if there is a 10% chance of “rain” their plans are 90% likely to succeed, not realising that the likelihood of “rain” at some point over time, is much closer to 100%.
    The basic principle is that if something is possible, no matter how unlikely, the chance of it happening increases the longer the period in question.

    1. You know I think you’ve nailed it here. Perhaps part of the problem is the business planning process itself and how that brings about short-termism. I was doing a workshop recently where people were very open and admitted they almost never thought more than a year ahead (even though there actions within that 12 months had legacy for 40-50 years). So in their world , the ‘chance of rain’ in the first 12 months is pretty minimal , therefore not worth worrying about or planning for.

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