Innovating in uncertainty

The author of this blog, Mok O'Keeffe, will be leading a FREE webinar on "Innovation in an Age of Uncertainty", for all AMBA members on 9 November 2017, 13:00-14:00 GMT. Book your place now for this exclusive webinar >>

 Living with uncertainty has become our new normal. Whether it’s a surprise election result, rollercoaster stock markets, or competition from disruptors; there is constant change in the world. Though, in recent years, the type of change has evolved. No longer are we faced with classic change management, instead we are in a period of hyper-change, recognised only by the speed at which it happens.

Partly driven by a digital and technological revolution - artificial intelligence, big data and machine learning – and partly driven by the unpredictable economical and political climate; hyper-change isn’t about management. It’s about adaptability; forcing you to do something different.

Biologist, Charles Darwin, often preached that those who survived were not the fittest, but the most adaptable. The ones who innovate. Time and time again, we see this in business. For example, Netflix survived over Blockbuster because it adapted from delivering CD’s in the post, to taking advantage of new technology provided by broadband and streaming. Ray Krok, the power behind McDonald’s didn’t make a financial success of the business until he adapted his model and began to lease the land on which the restaurants were built to his new franchisees. Premium supermarket, Waitrose, launched its Essentials range during the last recession when their customers, and subsequently the brand, started to feel the pinch. This was in direct contradiction to their high-end brand positioning at the time, but has gone on to be a smash hit with their customers and has grown in stock and popularity long after the recession ended.

Though making the decision to innovate in an uncertain climate is often difficult. Why take the risk? Step into the unknown? I recently saw a fantastic cartoon which summarised this conversation in one sentence: ‘What if we don’t change at all and something magical happens?’ Change, by its very nature, is uncomfortable. Often, and more so in a period of instability, it’s easier to stay as you are, hoping luck and good fortune will happen, than embrace it head on.

But taking no action rarely results in sustained business performance. The fall out is lower productivity, decline, and ceasing to exist. Just consider the journeys of Kodak, Blackberry, and Woolworths over the past decade.

So, given that this VUCA climate, this period of hyper-change, looks to be around for the foreseeable, we, as leaders, must recognise that there’s never going to be the perfect time (i.e. stability) to innovate. Instead, we must see uncertainty as a real gift; providing the perfect platform upon which to drive creativity in the business, generate ideas and move forward.

However, this requires strong leadership. While ambiguity makes everything a little more interesting, managing and innovating within it is a challenge and a key leadership skill. There’s no such thing as black and white leadership anymore. Leaders must operate, and manage within the grey, with flexibility, agility, and speed. So, while the impact of artificial intelligence and big data becomes more acute, and algorithms enable us to manage the day-to-day, any uncertainty, especially one which has not been predicted by the machines, will require management to use their creative genius. It could even be a welcome distraction; after all a life that is predictable is a dull life, or so I believe.

If your leaders don’t have these skills, it’s time to invest in them. They must be educated and equipped to innovate – without this, there’s little chance they will speak up, offer ideas and drive innovation when things are tough. The fear of failure is greater than the benefits of success.

It’s often said that death and taxes are the only certain things in this world. I’d like to add ambiguity to that mix. Because, in this era of continuous change, there is nothing more certain in the world as the need for ambiguity to achieve greatness. New thinking, adapting, and innovating are the only ways modern day businesses can survive in this new normal. The only way they can sustain, grow, and profit for many years to come.

Mok O’Keeffe is the founder of The Innovation Beehive, an organisation which helps businesses release the creative energy of their people. Their whitepaper on how to create an innovation culture in just six steps, is available to download from their website. @innovationbee /

Mok O'Keeffe will be leading a FREE webinar on "Innovation in an Age of Uncertainty", for all AMBA members on 9 November 2017, 13:00-14:00 GMT. Book your place now for this exclusive webinar >>

  • Thank you, Mok, for this very interesting and insightful article! I would probably mention in addition one small thing and I hope you would agree with it: managers' creative genious would not only be required for those uncertainties that are not predicted by the machines, but also for the predicted ones! Because sometimes such predictions can contradict your current vision or usual business logic, or sometimes even the common sense. One should really have courage in adopting things one could not understand. For example, Big Data algorithms can suggest you close the location you were considering promising, or enter a new market segment you never considered to touch etc. etc.