The past few months have seen a notable increase in the number of people who have suddenly developed fortune-telling capabilities. This is naturally a text-book example of the market mechanism known as “demand and supply” – the humanity is aching for knowledge about when the post-COVID-19 era starts to unfold and what it will look like.
While the future seems more uncertain than what we are used to thinking, I actually argue that the apparent lack of a crystal ball is more of a blessing than a curse. It’s good for business, good for society, and good for us as individuals. Let me explain.
The apparent lack of a crystal ball is more of a blessing than a curse.
The sticky credo of planning
While it is always possible to argue about the validity of the knowledge we have about yesterday, we have to agree about the nature of knowledge we have about tomorrow – it doesn’t exist. At the same time, we have always gone about as if we could know something about the future.
The approach to this paradox that yields the safest feeling is built on assuming the existence of certain trajectories based on the events past. These trajectories can then be projected into the future as repeating cycles or progressing trends: the sun has so far been quite faithful in rising each morning, and it seems that humanity has been inching towards more urban habitation.
These trajectories form the very baseline to our activities as individuals, firms, and societies because if we didn’t believe them, it would have made very little sense to go about emerging from the safety of the caves to do more than hunt and gather to satisfy the imminent hunger. But the appeal to view future as a continuum based on history has its notable downsides when we take for granted that most, or at least many, of the meso- or micro level trajectories continue unchanged as well.
This approach and its downsides are evident in how we have been used to thinking about business strategy: we believe that we can today sketch a goal that would at the moment of reaching it, in say, five years, still be desirable and useful. As anyone tinkering with mobile phones in Nokia in 2005 can state, with the current rate of technological advances, these planning strategies are mere folly.
Alternative approaches to strategy
In recent years, the fringes of the strategy field have started to become populated with two new types of approaches to strategy that do not require faith in a crystal ball. Adaptive strategies emphasize organizational agility, the routines of reacting and responding to external surprises. Known by many names, these flexible strategies are grounded on accepting the volume and velocity of surprises that a firm may face, and instead of pinning down definite long-term goals, they scout the environment to seize the openings.
The adaptive strategies still share one fundamental assumption with the planning approaches: in both, the change is always initiated from outside. The alternative is to see the environment as malleable, something we can both in the short and the long term have an impact on. The coming up with the T-model automobile by Henry Ford, or the introduction of the iPad by Steve Jobs are examples of transformative strategies: instead of anticipating the future or reacting to the external shocks, they took the initiative to shape the present and future.
We are not bound by some magically permanent trends and events.
The beneficial impact of shattering faith in crystal balls
Yes, there are always external events, like the current coronavirus crisis, that have an impact on our lives in a way we could never have anticipated. However, while we cannot predict what will happen, we have control over how do we deal with it. We are like farmers: while there is no way of knowing if this seed grows into a crop, without sowing the seed, the harvest is surely impossible. We always have different seeds of tomorrow in our hands, and control over what we sow.
For the individual, this means a moment of reflection: if I don’t know what tomorrow will look like, why don’t I do today what I find most meaningful? Realizing what to me is meaningful may open up completely new avenues that in the rat race of our lives escape our attention.
For the firm, the opaqueness of tomorrow mandates thinking about the genuine resources, capabilities, and values that our business is built on: is our business so valuable to society that we can believe that we can always prove our worthiness? With the resources and capabilities we have harnessed, what can we do to start making the future we want?
For society, seeing that the immutability of some of our taken-for-granted trajectories is a mere illusion, makes us realize the possibility of actually tackling some of the wicked problems. It was not impossible to shut down the economy to save lives today, so why would it be impossible to change the economy towards saving lives tomorrow by changing the trend of climate change?
The blinding light of the illusion of a crystal ball shattering illuminates the true nature of tomorrow. We are not bound (or safeguarded) by some magically permanent trends and events we must foresee. Not having a crystal ball compels us to focus on what we genuinely can control right now: it celebrates the agency embedded in us as individuals, firms, and societies.
Dr. Milla Wirén works as a research manager in the Disruption lab at the Turku School of Economics. She focuses on exploring socio-technological change when it is beyond normal, and her reflections on the current corona disruption can be found in a blog series at https://disrupt.utu.fi/blog