Why managers don't have to have all the answers

EVERYTHING YOU KNOW ABOUT BUSINESS IS WRONG: Don't fall into the trap of misguided certainty.

by Alastair Dryburgh
Last Updated: 01 Sep 2016

I was at a seminar recently, one of the many gatherings hastily organised to discuss the consequences of Brexit. At the end of the session, the chairman asked the audience a question: would we still have freedom of movement of people once our exit from the EU was complete? 98% got the answer wrong. 80% said 'no'. 18% said 'yes'. Only 2% gave the correct answer - 'We don't know'.

This and other Brexit-related questions will pose the biggest challenge of many people's management careers. Not so much because of the potential outcomes, but because of the uncertainty - the 'We don't know' factor.

This uncertainty will throw into sharp relief a tension that is always present in organisations, but which we mostly manage to gloss over. The conflict between the expectation that, as managers, we know where things are going and the reality, which is that mostly, we don't.

In predictable times, holding to a definite view of the future can be helpful. In times of great uncertainty, however this becomes dangerous. Arguments about the future when it is unknowable can be time-wasting. In the absence of facts, there is no way of deciding the question. It can be resolved either by strength of personality, or not resolved at all.

Committing to a particular view of the future can make us feel decisive but it also risks blinding us to contrary developments. We stop noticing signs that may point to different outcomes, and may even suppress these clues - having made our choice we don't want to be disturbed by any awkward facts.

What can you do instead? Be watchful, ready to act swiftly when the situation becomes clearer. Look for 'no-regret' moves - clarify your value proposition, prune out unprofitable customers, look for ways to speed up your execution. You don't need a crystal ball to know that these will always look like good calls. Be careful about falling into the trap of misguided certainty, however. Sometimes an honest 'I don't know' really is the best answer.

Alastair Dryburgh is chief contrarian at Akenhurst Consultants 


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