Why high performance organizations will thrive on uncertainty and lack of control


I recently gave a presentation at an offsite meeting of the leadership team of a global professional services firm. I was asked to speak about the future of business, and to be provocative, which is usually my objective in that kind of situation – it’s not very valuable if you can’t get people to think differently.

I discussed the driving forces of global business, and then gave them three ‘propositions’ of how I saw the future of business. One of the three propositions, which was really the underlying theme of my presentation, was ‘High performance organizations will thrive on uncertainty and lack of control.’

When you look at what has really changed in the best performing organizations of today compared to say those of a couple of decades ago, this is at the heart of the matter. Executives used to be in control, know what was happening, and to direct the company’s activities in detail to achieve success. That doesn’t work any more.

As I told the audience, we all know CEOs who like being fully in control of the situation. Unless they can quickly change who they are, they are not well suited to the world of today and tomorrow, and will almost inevitably fail. Their successors will be completely comfortable with uncertainty, lack of control, and guiding a path to success from that base.

There are many ways in which this shift to uncertainty and lack of control has been manifested in recent years. Unquestionably one of the most prominent has been the rise of social media, which gives unparalleled power to the voice to consumers and staff, and puts many key issues outside the sphere of complete control. Of course they can always be influenced, guided, and shaped, however only if you acknowledge the lack of control and go with it, rather than trying to jam the genie back into the bottle.

However there are many other aspects to this lack of control. The vicissitudes of global economies have always impacted businesses, yet their unpredictability has been underlined in recent years. One of the prime drivers in the economy today is shared value creation, notably across extended value chains and in distributed innovation. Massive uncertainties around intellectual property, value allocation, and competitive boundaries emerge from this, yet taking the option of steering clear of these issues means forgoing the greatest potential for value creation.

In the discussion time after my presentation, one executive said ‘This means we’re stuffed!’, given the firm and its partners’ intense desire for certainty and control, and their unwillingness to let go even where it is evident they need to let go. However the first step on that path is the recognition that change is required. From there, leaders and staff can undertake to shift their attitudes and behaviors, and those who are better suited to a world of uncertainty can take the relay from those who are not.

I wrote a little while ago about Why scenario thinking (more than scenario planning) is critical for executives today. There are many ways to help executives and organizations shift how they think and work, to embrace uncertainty and understand how they can best shape their future. In many cases one of the best approaches is to use scenario planning, partly to help understand the uncertainties in the future industry landscape and to build robust strategies, but often more to assist executives to change their responses to uncertainty and lack of control.

It is possible that some medium performance organizations will still be founded on the desire for certainty and control. However I don’t doubt that the truly high performance organizations of the future will thrive on uncertainty and lack of control.