“I’m At My Best In Times Of Complete Certainty” (Chapter 2)
We all like to feel safe and secure; it offers us a level of comfort. We may even perceive that we have certainty. But the reality is that we don’t. When we relentlessly seek certainty we’re not just missing out on opportunities, we’re also putting ourselves at greater risk.
Let me explain.
When Cyclone Tracy hit Darwin in 1974 on Christmas Day more than 40 ships, including Navy vessels, prawn boats, ferries and schooners that sat in the safety of the harbour, were either damaged or destroyed.1 However, the ships that went to sea were safe.
According to Navy reports, “Mountainous seas, whipped up by winds of 170 knots were like crashing dumpers, and the harbour became strewn with wreakage.”2 Several naval vessels sunk in the safety of the harbour, while others, such as HMAS ADVANCE and ASSAIL, were safe after heading for open sea.
Thinking about these ships, you automatically assume that they are safer in the harbour. After all, they are near to land and help, if needed. Whereas those at sea appear more vulnerable and harder to get to should they need assistance.
And yet the ship that is in open water during a cyclone, or any storm for that matter, is safer, despite the uncertainty of the squall. This ship can manoeuvre, they can adapt, and they can outrun the storm. The ship in harbour is a sitting duck, so to speak, lulled into a false sense of security, with no ability to change its plans, adapt, and ultimately survive.
The same applies to executives who perceive they are at their best in times of complete certainty. They too are lulled into a false sense of security, with many believing that a detailed plan helps them to achieve this certainty that they seek. But, does it?
What may have worked in the past is no longer valid in this fast-moving world full of change and unpredictability. Certainty is elusive, and those who wait may cost themselves far more than anticipated.
Turning back the hands of time gives us some insight into understanding this predicament further.
In the 90s, I worked on a number of IT projects. Back then, the pace of change was slower; certainty was an essential step that allowed teams to move forward with change. This certainty then helped project leaders and their teams determine strategic steps for the IT systems we were building.
These plans were also a must for the business, as without them an initiative would not be funded. As part of our planning, it was not unusual (in fact it was often compulsory) to create a detailed seven-year plan for data storage, right down to the number of users, the database requirements and anticipated storage capacity. Back then, storage was expensive, and those costs needed to be planned for. We were essentially trying to predict the future.
Today, the average IT system doesn’t even last seven years.
Not only do today’s systems last for less time, but we also cannot be 100% sure if they will compete well in an already flooded market. Hence, we now build prototypes and test them early before we invest too much time, effort and resources into product creation. If we test the product as a prototype and it flops, then we can adapt the product until it meets the customer need, or we can scrap the idea completely and start again.
Given today’s fast-paced world, new products and services are most often needed right now, rather than later. So, the team that pours its heart and soul into creating a foolproof plan in minute detail will find themselves missing the opportunity completely because another team elsewhere has started with a simple plan and elaborated on it as they progressed.
Sure, the first team feel safer and more secure. But this sense of security is false because while they were feeling safe, the second team have launched their prototype, tested the market, and are well on their way to having a viable product in the market.
1Lyons, Suzannah. Tropical Cyclone Tracey: December 25, 1974. ABC.net.au 2014.
2Royal Australian Navy News. Darwin Edition. Vol 18. No.1. Navy.gov.au 1974.