The Four Uncertainties

By David Belden

As I talk with my clients, who represent a highly diverse cross-section of businesses, from virtual consultants to blue-collar, mid-market operations to Fortune-100 telecoms, I sense a consistent reluctance to move confidently into the future. As I explored with each of them the source of their reluctance, we uncovered together a pervasive anxiety about the future.

The most predominant anxiety we explored was an encompassing uncertainty. For each of my clients, this usually takes one or more of four forms:

1. Uncertainty about the consequences of political decisions (or lack of same): This is not about party politics. It is simply the confusion generated by an inert Congress and an increasingly polarized society. The unbelievable ineptitude of political leaders of all persuasions has resulted in a gridlock that prevents any future planning on the part of business. This leads, of course, to the second uncertainty;

2. Uncertainty of the economic future: Even though most of my clients are doing exceptionally well, the fact that the global economic news is contradictory and complex means that orders are not being placed in a timely manner. The lack of clarity and conflicting news about future growth engenders reluctance to commit investment dollars. The results are inefficiency in planning and execution.

3. Technological advances that can game-change an entire line of business: Phenomena such as iPads, virtualization, Skype, Mechanical Turk, eLance, the death of Web 2.0, social media, etc., etc., have created massive confusion regarding investment, hiring, relocation, outsourcing, and even the hope of strategic decision-making.

Advances in the popularity of cloud computing have caused many of my clients to hesitate to make any major purchase. They are concerned that an investment in new servers or software licenses today may be wasted. Apple’s introduction of iCloud in the fall is one more game-changer. iCloud is the first major business-to-consumer use of cloud computing. Because it is Apple, we will see a massive acceptance of cloud computing by consumers, as well as by commercial interests, creating instantaneous ubiquity. The movement skyward will be accelerated exponentially.

Technological advances have also mandated organizational restructuring into totally non-traditional forms. We are already seeing everything from virtual assistants to virtual CEOs. We see more and more employees working remotely, without offices. I was talking last week with an attorney who has created a virtual law practice with other attorneys on a global scale. Technology has made all of this possible, if not inevitable.

4. Customer uncertainty: Customer expectations have radically changed. I have surveyed all of my 22 current clients. Without exception, they have confirmed that their customers have come to expect new and different services from all of their vendors and suppliers. What I hear most often is that a long-time customer that has been fully satisfied with my client’s services in the past now expects both the current service and an additional service that includes advice on anticipating the future. (More on this problem here.)

The major challenge this generates is the need to provide innovative solutions from a staff that has traditionally only provided task completion. Some of my clients welcome this as a fantastic opportunity to define new service offerings to current customers. Others see it as an incredibly challenging change in the direction of today’s business model.

The result of these four uncertainties is that businesses are hesitant to invest, hire, train or develop staff. They are also resistant to creating new, venturesome lines of business. Furthermore, since everyone is uncertain and hesitant to invest, when a decision is finally made, the expectation is that the product or service will be delivered immediately. Only a few years ago, most businesses had a substantial backlog, which made production of product or provision of service orderly and predictable. No longer! Now, everyone puts off any purchase until the last possible moment, then expects immediate fulfillment. This precipitates surges and lulls, which makes strategic planning and efficient execution all but impossible.

Are you seeing the same trends? I would love to collect your examples, and hear your opinions on other uncertainties that are slowing us down. The inexorable forward movement toward efficiency and automation can overcome the most stubborn human resistance. For that to happen, though, humans must first recapture the courage to invest and embrace risk. How can we help make that happen?

A 12-year Vistage Chair, David Belden is the founder of the facilitation and executive development company, ExecuVision International. Educated in Denmark, David has 30 years of experience in international trade, garnered while living abroad and focusing on purchasing, importing, exporting and creating new operations in foreign countries. Follow David’s Twitter feed here.
Originally published: Jan 22, 2012

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