Here is a brief excerpt from an article written by Zafer Achi and Jennifer Garvey Berger for the McKinsey Quarterly, published by McKinsey & Company. They suggest that, in an unpredictable world, executives should stretch beyond managing the probable. To read the complete article, check out other resources, learn more about the firm, obtain subscription information, and register to receive email alerts, please click here.
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It’s only natural to seek certainty, especially in the face of the unknown. Long ago, shamans performed intricate dances to summon rain. It didn’t matter that any success they enjoyed was random, as long as the tribe felt that its water supply was in capable hands. Nowadays, late nights of number crunching, feasts of modeling, and the familiar rituals of presentations have replaced the rain dances of old. But often, the odds of generating reliable insights are not much better.
Perhaps that’s because our approach to the hardest problems—and the anxiety those problems create—is fundamentally misdirected. When most of us face a challenge, we typically fall back on our standard operating procedures. Call this “managing the probable.” In much of our education, and in many of our formative experiences, we’ve learned that some simple problems have one right answer. For more complicated problems, accepted algorithms can help us work out the best answer from among available options. We respond to uncertainty with analysis or leave that analysis to the experienced hands of others. We look for leaders who know the way forward and offer some assurance of predictability.
This way of approaching situations involves a whole suite of routines grounded in a mind-set of clarity if not outright certainty. To that end, they are characterized by sharp-edged questions intended to narrow our focus: What is the expected return on this investment? What is the three-year plan for this venture? At what cost are they willing to settle? But asking these kinds of questions, very often legitimate in business-as-usual settings, may constrain management teams in atypical, complex situations, such as responding to a quickly changing market or revitalizing a privatized utility’s culture. Our tendency to place one perspective above all others—the proverbial “fact-based view” or “maximizing key stakeholders’ alignment”—can be dangerous. All too often, we operate with an excessively simple model in enormously messy circumstances. We fail to perceive how different pieces of reality interact and how to foster better outcomes.
Moving from “managing the probable” to “leading the possible” requires us to address challenges in a fundamentally different way. Rather than simply disaggregating complexities into pieces we find more tractable, we should also broaden our range of interventions by breaking out of familiar patterns and using a whole new approach that allows us to expand our options, experiment in low-risk ways, and realize potentially outsized payoffs. But be warned: leading the possible involves coping with our own anxieties about an unknowable and uncontrollable world. A few simple habits of mind presented here can prod us toward thinking and acting differently. These should not be considered a checklist of to-dos; indeed, the very point is to move beyond a check-the-box mentality.
We relish stories of unexpected possibilities—little bets that created huge and unforeseen benefits. Twitter, for instance, was born when its creators noticed how alive and engaged they felt when communicating with each other in real time over SMS. The concept was brilliant, and the platform has reshaped the way the world communicates. But the initiative arose from brainstorming rather than an elaborate business plan. Tweeting caught on, in large part, because it grants its users freedom. In fact, Twitter cofounder Evan Williams has explained that, in general, his rule is to do less. We can’t foresee how uncertain conditions will unfold or how complex systems will evolve, but we can conduct thoughtful experiments to explore the possibilities.
That’s what happened at the birth of Emirates Airline. We’ve grown accustomed to thinking of Dubai as a major transit hub, but its development was hardly inevitable. During the mid-1980s, Gulf Air, the area’s regional flag carrier at the time, began to cut back its services to the city. Faced with the possibility of hundreds of stranded passengers in the short term, and the threat of long-term decline, the government tried something new. With a small infusion of cash (by airline standards), it leased two planes with crews from another airline and converted a couple of jets from the royal fleet for commercial use. In time, the fledgling Emirates Airline flew high. Traffic through Dubai International Airport seeded a local tourism industry and, on the cargo side, a logistics platform. This in turn attracted ever more traffic in what became a fantastically virtuous cycle. Not even the most optimistic of the airline’s founders could have reasonably imagined that Emirates Airline would be an industry giant—or that Dubai would become the world’s busiest international-passenger airport.
The leaders of these new ventures used unconventional approaches to try new, unexpected moves—with enormous payoffs. But it’s not just large innovations that make a difference. When people think in new ways, very small shifts can have unexpected and significant consequences.
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Here is a direct link to the complete article.
Zafer Achi is a director emeritus of McKinsey’s Dubai office; Jennifer Garvey Berger is a partner at Cultivating Leadership. This article is adapted from Jennifer Garvey Berger and Keith Johnston’s book, Simple Habits for Complex Times: Powerful Practices for Leaders (Stanford University Press, February 2015).
The authors would like to thank Claudio Feser, a director in McKinsey’s Zürich office, and Keith Johnston, a partner at Cultivating Leadership, for their contributions to this article.