How Certain are You about Uncertainty? by Marius Meyer

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There is only one thing I am certain about today, and that is uncertainty. While we are faced with new levels of business confidence and a sense of hope that things will go better, especially in the light of President Ramaphosa’s vision of a “new dawn,” there are so many signs of increasing levels of uncertainty.  While the optimists only see that things will improve, the pessimists are convinced that things will get worse.  And looking at the news headlines, it appears as if the pessimists are leading the debate.

Our inability to answer the following questions with certainty highlights the reality of uncertainty in an increased volatile business, political and socio-economic landscape:

  • Will the economy recover and what is the likelihood that we will achieve a 2% economic growth rate, while we in fact need to achieve more than double that growth to become a successful nation?
  • Does President Ramaphosa have sufficient support in making the new dawn a reality?
  • Will the Youth Employment Service really make a difference and reduce youth unemployment?
  • Do we have the right leaders in business and government to take the country forward?
  • Are we able to cope with the level of complexity and uncertainty today?
  • Will the education system ever improve to provide our youngsters with the appropriate knowledge and skills to survive (or rather thrive) in the new world of work?
  • Will we cope and be relevant in the total different world brought about by the Fourth Industrial Revolution?
  • What type of world will our children live and work in?
  • Will we ever be able to turn the tide on fraud and corruption?
  • Will we ever achieve the elusive dream off equality without any forms of racism and discrimination in a society in which everyone are truly equal citizens in terms of opportunities and income?
  • Will the high levels of crime and violence ever decrease?
  • What will be the next major technological gadget on the market?
  • Where will we see the next major service delivery protest?
  • When will we face the next major corporate scandal?
  • Will there be a new virus or outbreak of a diseases causing further panic in society?
  • Is small business really the answer if so many smaller businesses are struggling to survive?
  • Will our pensions be enough for those of us who will retire soon, or are pension schemes outdated products designed for the past – a world that no longer exists?
  • What will be the next major force of disruption in the world?

I can go on and pose a hundred similar questions.  Perhaps there is only one real question and that is whether we are able to copy with these increased levels of uncertainty.  Over the last few years, business and leadership thought leaders challenged managers and business professionals to get ready for the VUCA world, i.e. an acronym for volatile, uncertain, complex and ambiguous.  We were told that we must be able to deal with uncertainty if we want to be successful.  While much of management thinking in the past was about creating stable organisations with principles such as quality, consistency, replicability, simplicity at its core, the recent focus on dealing with uncertainty has become the new normal in business.  For instance, over the last thirty years management practice was dominated by clarity and certainty.  Management philosophies such as quality management, risk management and project management attempted to create a sense of certainty, stability and predictability in business.  The argument was that if you can make it clear how you will produce quality or plan and manage a project according to a clear process and deliverables then you are in control of your business and its operations.

However, as volatility increased in the external business environment, this spilled over inside companies with business leaders now realising that a more flexible approach is needed.  While you can map your processes, and chart your plans and projects with beautifully designed project plans, the new reality is that business does not work like that anymore.  The new age of disruption makes this even more difficult, and business leaders often come short when they are too slow to adapt to the forces of change and disruption. In the past you could even determine the rules of the game and then manage your business according to these clearly defined principles and rules.  Now the rules of the game change in the middle of the game, and business leaders are simply unable to cope with this fast changing environment.

The rapid emergence of new and disruptive business models, such as Uber and many others, are forcing business leaders to think differently about how they do business.  In practice, disruption means that your business model is actively being studied and then immediately challenged by disrupters.   These disrupters are so smart in turning business upside down, that it has become a reality that they can over a relatively short period of time close your business down.  In other sectors, your demise may take longer, but eventual death will hit you after years of inability to adapt to change.

Even government organisations who assumed they did not have “competition” are challenged.  In less than two decades, the private security industry is now double the size of the national police service, with many people trusting their security firms more than the police, so much so that many crimes are not even reported to the police anymore.  Another example of how the private sector disrupted government business has been the rapid growth of private postal services replacing the traditional government post office. This let to many government post offices closing down. However, the growth in electronic communication, smart phones and social media has now even disrupted the private “postal” services and today most people rather access the Internet via their smart phones. This means that Internet cafes will be the next casualty in the age of technological connectivity and disruption.

In the socio-political environment, the last decade was characterised by increased levels of conflict, terrorism and infighting.  Trust in politicians has decreased worldwide.  President Trump with his aggressive style of leading one of the top nations in the world has increased volatility world-wide.  The reality is that financial markets don’t respond well to uncertainty and radical political change, unless if these changes drive innovation,  economic growth and socio-political stability.   Moreover, it is also clear that while the World Economic Forum in Davos highlighted inequality as the top challenge world-wide facing political and economic leaders, and this issue is not a main priority for the American government under Trump’s leadership.

In South Africa, the current low economic growth, perpetual high level of unemployment fuelling political instability, coupled with unacceptable levels of corruption in government and the private sector, the second half of 2018 may be challenging indeed.   Hopefully we will soon know what really happened at Steinhoff and then as a country do everything possible to prevent another corporate scandal.

Business leaders, human resource directors and talent managers are expected to continue working towards the achievement of business objectives despite the uncertainty in the broader business environment.  Despite the high level of uncertainty, the need to navigate change and building human capital will remain a top priority in business this year.   The ability to be resilient when dealing with uncertainty and to keep on giving direction, leveraging talent and engaging staff and other stakeholders while entering unchartered territories in an increasing uncertain and volatile business environment will be a key capability for survival and success going forward. 

Furthermore, we need a new type of positivity, one that is much more than simply staying blindly loyal or optimistic despite the chaos around us. The new positivity will drive new behaviours required to build the new world – people who are active in shaping the future and being able to navigate uncertainty.  While Uber created uncertainty for the traditional taxi industry, the Uber client has absolute certainty about the arrival time and route taken by the driver. This new type of digital predictability shows the power of new and disruptive business models rewriting the rules of business in a totally different work and community space in society.  In fact, the only way of dealing effectively with uncertainty is to see it as an opportunity and not as a threat by shifting your focus and culture to innovation. Being in a permanent state of innovation will help management teams and employees to not only cope, but also thrive when innovation becomes the norm of doing business.

In conclusion, the only thing we can be certain of in today’s world is uncertainty.  Developing progressive mindsets and skills to cope with uncertainty will be the key individual and business differentiator in this uncertain world.  Welcome to the new real world of uncertainty!

Marius Meyer is CEO of the SA Board for People Practices (SABPP). An earlier version of this article appeared in Talent Talks.