You can't connect the dots looking forward; you can only connect them looking backwards. So you have to trust that the dots will somehow connect in your future. You have to trust in something -- your gut, destiny, life, karma, whatever.
About a month ago the Huffington Post published a widely shared article: "Steve Jobs' 1983 Speech Makes Uncanny Predictions About The Future," hinting at the fact that in addition to being a marketing, design, technology and otherwise genius, he was a modern day Nostradamus to boot.
But read the article. Steve Jobs in no way shape or form predicted the future. He envisioned how wireless connectivity should work, how technology could become a deeply integral part of every part of daily life, and made it happen over the course of decades (and a good number of failures). Steve Jobs did NOT predict the future, he invented it.
Why does this matter to you, who are neither Jack Kennedy nor Steve Jobs?
Because it is becoming increasingly impossible to predict the future but diminishingly effective to look at the competition and engage in checkbox-wars-faux-innovation. It is increasingly easy to make a business case for or against nearly any approach to any problem, and the interconnectedness and complexity of nearly everything renders traditional 12 month planning cycles barely useful, and increasingly time consuming.
But do not despair! This may look like a paralytic situation, but it is the perfect time to tweak the rules and reframe the question. It is a liberation.
Rather than spend the majority of time and effort trying to predict and account for external factors, the near collapse of this model gives us license, permission and imperative to focus on internal ones.
The Simple Way Forward
1. You must decide what really matters, and use that as your primary guide.
This has traditionally been an overlooked discussion in business (with a few notable exceptions). The discussion of why has exploded (thank you Simon Sinek) (though few know how to do it, but this is another discussion).
Understanding what really matters -- the outcome you want to deliver -- is now the only meaningful, durable, criteria for decision-making. It is the future. What do you want it to look like? What do you feel in your bones? What do you believe in?
Without this, decisions are random, reactionary, political and rapidly remade, and unmade if they are made at all. This is what Mr Jobs was referring to when he says “you have to believe in something.” It's your only viable guide (and while I applaud and wear Toms shoes, when I talk about a purpose-driven company it is this that I mean, not that).
2. This is not an excuse not to think, but an invitation to think harder.
The great remaining benefit of planning is that, when properly done, it thinks through the problem rigorously and unpacks the foreseeable details. To avoid this is simple laziness.
3. HOWEVER: we know that reality will intervene in unpredictable ways.
Our responsibility, therefore, is to build resilience into our work. That is to say, establish times, places and mechanisms to understand and acknowledge reality and respond accordingly.
This can take many forms. The simplest is to work in short phases. That is, rather than planning a year long project, break it into pieces.
4. But business is planning, right?
Planning assumes that you can predict the future. We grade our performance based on how well we predicted the future (metrics). We think we can look at the metrics, use them to improve our predictive capabilities.
So if we accept that we can’t predict the future, are metrics still useful? Yes! Metrics become guideposts and diagnostics. They help us to understand where we are and how well we understand cause and effect. They are not goals, and they are not meaningful in and of themselves. If something isn’t working, your metrics are your way to get deeper insight into what is not working. If it is working, metrics can help you recognize that.
Planning itself needs a new approach. Engineers began to figure this out about a decade ago. In counterpoint to the traditional waterfall method, they chose agile and agile-ish methodologies for software. Software engineers adopted agile, because waterfall (design intensely, build a schedule based on design, execute) methodologies turned out to be such appallingly bad predictors of success. (I look forward to any takers on the Agile debate -- its effectiveness, whether and when its actually used, blah, blah, the point is it was a significant attempt to change the game that was interesting enough to go mainstream-ish.)
Engineers discovered and accepted this quickly, because management at the time only understood one thing with software: the ship date. Make it and they were rewarded, slip and they were finished. And waterfall schedules always slipped. 98 percent of the time. Why? Because software is so complex that it is nearly impossible to tell if it works prior to actually trying it, and even then, it's not that easy.
Most other business problems are similarly complex, but the complexity, and the failure of traditional methods can be harder to recognize. So ironically, it was the perpetually slipped ship date that reinvented the engineering process -- which might be the best success story for metrics this side of Amazon.
Other business disciplines must follow suit
We suffer when we try to predict the unpredictable. We look foolish when we’re wrong, so we work very hard to be right and in doing so we shred our ability to respond to change. And we, the participants, detest the process because we know that no matter how hard we work, we are unlikely to succeed this way. It is depressing.
As we continue to stumble into the gaps created by our waterfall predictions of marketing, sales, design and other business activity, we must bring more of them into a post-waterfall, quasi agile approach.
A brief aside -- ten years ago, when agile was new, it was phenomenal in its effectiveness and ability to help people rethink something that was deeply broken and depressing -- the typical software cycle. We’ve seen this methodology abused, both by teams who are still waterfall but call it agile, and by radical practitioners with near religious zeal for its rituals. Frameworks are there to help guide the way, not relieve you of the need to think ever again.
So, how do we apply “agile” to the business process? What follows will seem obvious, edgy or downright radical, depending on your circumstances, but this approach can scale to your level of comfort.
Step One -- Think
Establish your why: “how will the world be different if we achieve our goals.” Ironically, many of us ignore the fact that we can’t answer this immediately. Perhaps it's too embarrassing to admit.
If this question is unanswerable, then the first stage -- the first experiment -- is about answering this question. Do something (almost anything). This is throwing out feelers to immerse yourself in the gestalt of the issue. It may or may not be a completely false step, but it can be an effective way to enter a completely unknown realm. A kind of echolocation.
Step Two -- Think
Depending on how new this type of project is for you, do an appropriately in-depth level of planning. If it is completely new, do very little. If its your second at bat, a little more, if you do it everyday, go ahead and think it deeply through.
Step Three -- Create Resilience (Think)
Consider one or more resilient approaches to the work.
A few weeks ago at KMWorld, David Snowden laid out an extremely compelling case for one highly resilient method he calls “Multiple Parallel Safe to Fail experiments.” This is an ingenious, highly resilient process that rapidly explores the solution space in a low risk way, while maximizing the likelihood of finding success through the process of ritualized dissent. It's a magnificent and magnificently simple process (in theory), but may be a bit much for beginners. Not because it is difficult in deed, but it plays by a different set of rules, and that’s awkward.
Mr Snowden acknowledges that we can argue all we want about the best approach to a tough problem, but in the end, we cannot know in advance which is the best solution. The best approach is therefore to take all of the ideas that pass the sniff-test ( he has a fantastically useful and rigorous sniff-test he calls “ritualized dissent” ) and invest just a little in each and see what works. If at least some don’t fail, Snowden says you aren’t exploring the space aggressively enough. It makes so much sense it kind of hurts.
That said, this can be a lot to swallow for those teams and organizations who are not yet comfortable recognizing the high levels of uncertainty they live with now. It may be easier to sell a single-threaded version of this approach.
Several years ago a colleague of mine was tasked with the job of creating a social collaboration space for the entire US government, a role that she clearly understood was both a plum assigment and a catastrophe waiting to happen. She was smart enough to invite a wide variety of people into an open exploration discussion early on. She was kind enough to pretend I didn’t work for a “vendor” and invited me to attend.
The one bit of advice I gave her was to plan on the fact that whatever she did would be inadequate by definition, but if she said up front that they would build it in three phases, then she’d get three tries at being right instead of just one. After each phase she could face the complainers and detractors with a smile and invite them to invent phase next. By the time phase 3 came along she should have made enough progress to earn a phase 4. Or not.
At the time this seemed very radical, but what I was trying to tell her is not “fail fast” which is a problematic little epithet, but to construct the plan in advance to afford opportunities to make feedback, problems and concerns a positive rather than negative element.
You do this very simply. Rather than doing it all at once, break it into pieces (whatever it is) and do something quick. Step back and check it. Adjust and go forward a little more. And when you get good at it, parallelize it in the Snowden model.
What is important to you is the only sustainable advantage
You can’t predict the future, but you can make it happen -- if you have two tools at your disposal. The first is a willingness to take small steps and learn aggressively from them. The second -- and this is the very most superlatively important thing -- you must know what you are trying to achieve. You must have that durable internal guide that enables you to make good decisions and to understand their consequences. Attaining this can be the most difficult business challenge of all. But it may be the only one that really matters.
No one would argue that Apple is a leading social business. But they are a leading visionary business. Don’t try to copy Apple’s products, or anybody else’s. Don’t try to copy their management approach. Don’t try to copy. The checkbox wars might keep you afloat in the short term, but in the end it will fail.
In the end the greatest sustainable advantage, and ultimately the most important driver of so-called “social businesses," will be the ability and willingness to think hard about what matters, and make it so.
The best is yet to come.
Editor's Note: Deb isn't afraid to ask the big questions. Read more: Social Business: It is NOT Culture. Or Technology. But Maslow Gets It