Can you make good decisions when you’re on a burning platform? It’s eight years now since Stephen Elop’s famous (infamous?) memo to the staff of Nokia, highlighting their precarious position. The evidence from that saga would be that it is certainly challenging to make good decisions under duress.
A burning platform may be an overstatement of the situation for many right now, but it’s certainly true that people and organisations alike are sensing a growing instability. And I’m concerned what this means for the future: are we making bad decisions now, and will we continue to, out of this sense of pressure? A feeling that our footing is already weakened.
A little life
What started me thinking about this was not the anniversary of a memo, but a piece of fiction. Hanya Yanagihara’s 2015 novel, A Little Life, tracks the lives of four college roommates, before and after their meeting. It addresses many themes, but the one that really stood out to me was the privilege of stability. The characters are divided by the various instabilities they all faced growing up: economic, cultural, family, identity, and these early issues play a huge role in shaping their later lives.
I come from a position of enormous stability, both growing up and now, and recognise the privilege that represents. And it makes me very conscious of the lack of stability others are forced to address before they can begin to move forward. My concern is that this basis of instability is growing.
The host of a BBC local radio show on which I sometimes appear tweeted this week that two thirds of people think life was better in the past. The source is a survey by Sky Data and Demos, as referenced in this story. I questioned what people preferred: higher mortality and inequality?
Well this is depressing. What did people enjoy about the past? The shorter life spans? The greater poverty? The (even more prevalent) racism and sexism? https://t.co/8ia5FfXZjw
The most interesting response was that it was about inflation:
@bookofthefuture It's the inflation. House, 80s: £55k Wage: £18k 3 years of earnings House, 2018: £215k Wage: £22k 10 years of earnings Uni fees: 1980: £0 2000: £3k 2018: £27k Cost inflation £1 in 1980 = £4.00 Wage growth £1 in 1989 = £1.80 Regulatory capture by pensioners...
The degradation in available spending power, particularly for the young, is well documented. But this set of statistics makes it particularly stark. Economic stability, historically represented by home ownership, is an increasingly distant prospect for many.
Stability of identity
One of the primary effects of technology that I talk about often is the choice it brings. By connecting communities and cultures across the world, it gives us access to more ideas, information, products and services than we have ever had before. This is mostly a good thing, in my opinion, but it’s not without its challenges.
In a world where your cultural and identity options were defined by the sources accessible in your immediate surroundings, usually the town or village where you grew up, there was little choosing to do. However uncomfortably it fit, most people slipped into a defined identity shared with the people around them, or at least shared many common cultural touchpoints.
Today we are much more free to define our identities, joining the dots between global cultural touchpoints. On the whole I think this is very positive. But it isn’t always easy. Choice is challenging, especially at the ages we have to make many of these choices, as teenagers and young adults.
There are many more examples of instability currently. I haven’t even touched on politics, for example. So what do we do, as people and organisations, to deal with this environment of instability?
I think there are three steps we can take.
- Think about the future: We really don’t think about the future, in any formal sense, with sufficient frequency. Live in the moment by all means, but take time frequently to think about where you want to be. Not necessarily in 20 years, but in five, two or even one. Do it often: every six months for organisations, maybe every two or three for individuals.
- Link goals to activity: Once we have a view of the future, we’re often poor at connecting our targets back to our day-to-day behaviour. This is particularly true of organisations that struggle to make consistent behaviour change in the pursuit of goals, but I think it’s probably true for people as well. Always refer back to your goals when planning your immediate activities.
- Learn to love change: This reality is not going away. The VUCA (Volatile, Uncertain, Complex, Ambiguous) environment is here to stay for the foreseeable future. Nostalgia for more stable times in the past does us no favours. Instead we need to accept change and learn to welcome it. As Leonard Mlodinow pointed out in a recent talk, we are all neophiles when change is positive, so we have to try to steer the changes in our lives and businesses and make them positive.