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.