In my talks on megatrends I almost always finish on what I think is the key leadership skill of the future – tolerance of ambiguity. And it is beginning to dawn on me just how difficult / rare this is to find in business. This week I was talking at a global mobility conference – concerned with the ability to provide people around the globe in timely, productive and cost effective fashion. So demographics, technology, working patterns, automation etc were all discussed. But at the end of the day, my suspicion was that most people wanted to know the answer to a binary question – in the future will we or won’t we move people around the world to work?
I have every sympathy with the group tasked with achieving that today – after all international regulations, tax jurisdictions, budgets, pace of change, pressure on talent are all factors which make this hugely difficult. But when you look forward it seems to me that there is only one real answer to their question – Yes and No. Meaning that there will still be roles for which the personal, hands on, physical presence is essential, but at the same time there will be other roles which have traditionally been done in person which can be handled remotely or through an alternative route.
This is by no means a unique example – it just happens to be the one that is current to me this week. And it illustrates the business mind set – to pretty much all commercial questions there needs to be a one size fits all (and hence definitive) answer. But what is increasingly clear is that there are many alternative futures and technology is presenting us with more options all the time. At the same time, customers and users are becoming more demanding, have higher expectations and are accustomed to ever more levels of personalisation, whether in terms of product, service or experience. The one size fits all option is therefore highly unlikely to be the right way to go either from the demand or supply side. So many questions may get answered with Yes and No.
And that is where the tolerance of ambiguity comes in because so much of the corporate infrastructure is designed to create efficiency – efficiency which is predicated on economies of scale. And in the same way that the internet has created abundance (rather than scarcity) in terms of markets, it seems to me have created abundance in terms of solutions. Finding the right match for the right customer therefore goes beyond the efficient here’s the one and only solution, to the agile and adaptable – how can we have a basket of options that handle what our customers want in an efficient way? The discussion of such agility tends to move rapidly to digital enablement, technology solutions, platforms, automation etc but it seems to me that culturally agility is simply not comfortable for many people’s mind set. The possibility of providing multiple options with the same (or better) levels of efficiency as before sits in the ‘does not compute’ box.
And none of this is surprising – tolerance of ambiguity has never been high on the list of attributes for high performance historically. Decisiveness, clarity of vision and purposeful action are all much easier and comfortable to recognise and deal with. So, in amongst the rest of the issues around creating agility, how to achieve a mind set shift to tolerate ambiguity, alternative futures, or solutions which feel radically different (potentially impossible\) to history becomes a major hurdle.
From a railway carriage – by Robert Louis Stevenson. A poem of its time, when the railways were amazing people with their speed (faster even than the supernatural) and at the same time democratising travel. We’re living in similar times today – my latest ‘card’ on CIAO is on geolocation / GPS which is one of those innovations that like train travel begins as a marvel and rapidly becomes the norm. I was visiting Seaton Delaval over the weekend and not only used my phone to direct me there but also realised that the National Trust app was showing me details of the nearest other properties and included Belsay Hall (English Heritage not National Trust).
All very well I hear you say but what’s the point. Well it occurred to me that so much of this data (like the application of Waze to satnavs) is happening without our really recognising what’s going on. We are just becoming very used to having contextual information provided as we move around – and increasingly expecting added value data to complement the central question we may have asked or is implicit. So we ask about local restaurants and burger bars and get not only the information but also which ones friends have liked or where we went to something similar recently. And all of this is changing our behaviour in some really subtle ways.
First, we no longer need to frame the right question – we can be much more lax about the key enquiry as our devices will supplement the answer with a raft of related information. Secondly, we don’t need to remember anything – our history (and our friends history) are increasingly available to us on our devices. Thirdly, all of this is in real time, so our need to organise in advance is also reduced. All of these might sound trivial but on a large scale they change how we think, how and what we remember and how we plan our days.
And, as I suggest on the ‘card’, all of this may be fine if we are all in the same boat but what about those without smart technology. As life evolves (especially with the advent of sensors and the internet of things) there will be an implicit assumption that everyone is sharing these behaviours, and all have access to smart devices. Over time of course this may be true (especially as technology becomes automated and less user triggered) but the interim is different. You only need to look at how many older cars are still on the road to see that not everyone can or will change at the same speed.