Chaos Learning: The Key To Mastering Uncertainty

how to master uncertainty

It’s a given that The Next Economy will be driven by 10 essential technologies, some of which are already a big part of our daily lives. What’s not a given is we don’t know how everything will play out. Still, it is imperative for leaders to understand how these technologies will shape business and society, for every organization is slowly turning into a technology company but are not acting like one.

This changes how leaders think about strategy.

Strategy must change

The call for changing how we think about strategy has been happening for more than two decades, specifically how a deliberate approach to strategy no longer fits this new reality and how organizations should shift to an emergent strategy approach.

Still, for all the star consultant talks, books and articles about it, most organizations are designed and run on the assumption of long-term stability.

Traditional strategy thinking is about making long-term commitments that will result in competitive advantage. The problem is we can’t predict the future very well, competitive advantage is rare and temporary, and companies are unable to keep up with the pace of adaptation in their markets.

Again, all of this is well known. Yet, there are still consultants who are paid to simplify the world into a 2×2 matrix, identify “best practices”, write detailed policies and procedures that limit behavior choice, and hope that the current version of market reality lasts long enough for these changes to be effective. But stable reality is being replaced by constant change, and at an accelerating pace.

The future is a range, not an end point

Complex adaptive systems teach us that the only norm is perpetual novelty. Traditional strategic planning was predicated on being able to somewhat successfully plot the future. We should be planning for multiple versions of the future, some that will actually co-exist at the same time.

While the last twenty years have been marked by leaders in pursuit of the elimination of variance, the next 20 years will be marked by leaders who create variance while maintaining a sense of stability. Tomorrow’s most effective leaders will embrace this new, chaotic world. Planning will be replaced by intelligent reaction. They will proactively anticipate where the next disruption may come from and prepare for multiple scenarios. Instead of relying on proven static methods and processes, leaders will focus on building a learning capability, being comfortable with ambiguity, continually working within a changing landscape and anticipating and reacting to it with agility.

We must redefine strategy not as a means of control, but as a means of understanding control. All of this isn’t to say that organizations won’t have control, it’s control and chaos. Google is a company that has embraced the emergent mindset, you can see it in how they’ve experimented with other business units and models; all backed up by date which drives their feedback loops.

When I say that the future is a range, I mean that there will always exist variance. For example, automation is inevitable in some domains more than others; but it will take time. We don’t know exactly how it will play out. Another example is how many pundits predicted that books and vinyls would cease to exist with the rise of digital books and music; it hasn’t happened yet and it won’t happen.

So what’s the right way to approach uncertainty?

Chaos learning, which starts with…

Be stubborn on vision, flexible on details

Contrary to popular belief the best forecasters don’t predict the future. What makes them great at forecasting is they’re good at changing their minds. In other words: they have strong opinions weakly held.

You want to commit to a vision, but you also have to leave room for surprise in how you’ll reach it; the goal is to be less wrong over time.

Chaos learning is the ability to be anticipatory, prepare for multiple scenarios, but also quick to make adjustments when your assumptions are invalidated. Ask yourself: Am I learning as fast as the world is changing?

It’s an important question because the most important skill we need to develop to have any chance of mastering change is that of unlearning what we believe about how the world works. The best leaders, and organizations, are learners. The ones that keep reinventing themselves do so because they find the revolution before it finds them through humility, curiosity and relentless experimentation; the objective is to develop an evolutionary advantage, not a competitive advantage.

That happens in chaos, not stability.

Bottom line: There is no silver bullet way to approach strategy, it’s a hybrid of both being deliberate and emergent at the same time. In a world where advantage is temporary, the only advantage is the ability to learn, develop and change fast. 

Also published on Medium.