Commentary & Analysis
Legacy Decisions and Facing Uncertainty
Every established business works with previous decisions, no matter their subject (technology, business strategies, or personnel), they all share a common challenge to change. You are faced with moving from a certain state (your legacy decision) to an uncertain state (the better results you seek).
By Jennifer Matt
Published: June 7, 2011
A few years ago I met a friend of my father's who was a top executive at IBM, he had a forty-year career with the company. I asked him of all the incredible changes that had happened over the timespan of his career, what was the greatest change to his day-to-day job? He went on to say that during his initial leadership positions at IBM he made a few decisions a month. In the last twenty years he was literally making a few decisions a day.
Pace isn't a surprising comment on what's changed over the last forty years, but his follow up was even more interesting. He said his batting average (good vs. not so good decisions) had definitely suffered under the increased velocity, which led him to have to develop the courage and skill of reversing, letting go, and backing out of previous decisions.
Being decisive is challenging – especially within organizations that value politics and activity levels over results. Decisions are risky and we tend to be captivated by the delusion that more study, more consideration, always equals a better decision. Quite often ANY decision made immediately with conviction is better than endlessly weighing options for months on end.
It requires neither vision nor courage to continue to consider options or do another study, buy another report, hire another consultant, or form a committee or task force. What I find ironic – in all this consideration we are searching for and sometimes paying for something that is NOT AVAILABLE ANYWHERE. We are looking for certainty in an uncertain world. Why do I believe the world is uncertain? Because so much of what's going on is unchartered waters (things that haven't happened before) but also at a pace that is unprecedented. Facebook is amazing as a phenomenon but what makes it really crazy? The pace of its growth, we may see the one-billionth user of Facebook before they go public!
This is a real quandary – we are faced with a pace of change that is unprecedented, one that requires us to not only make decisions more often but also be courageous enough to reverse a proportion of our decisions (openly accept mistakes). Combine that with a work environment that is political rather than results oriented and you get a recipe for disaster. In a politically dominated work environment nobody risks making real decisions, while the world changes around them, their business inevitably suffers.
I attended the The World Domination Summit this weekend in Portland, Oregon; Jonathan Fields talked about his decision to leave his high paying attorney job in New York City. Everyone in his professional life had the same basic argument – you're going to throw away the investment you made in law school, the experience you have at this firm, and the potential to make partner? He reframed the question brilliantly – he said yes, I'm going to change course because the SEVEN years investment isn't worth holding onto if it means I do something I hate for the next FORY years of my career. Reframing a decision can really help you understand the true cost of staying the course. Everyone was looking at his decision based on what he'd done up until that point. He was looking at it from the angle of what he wanted to do for the rest of his life. 7 years or 40, your call.
Change, even in the face of overwhelming evidence of the need for change is difficult because it requires you to go from a "certain" state to an "uncertain" state.
Legacy business decisions are complicated, there are usually many people involved and many view a change of course as a stamp of failure on the previous decision. Change, even in the face of overwhelming evidence of the need for change is difficult because it requires you to go from a "certain" state to an "uncertain" state. So, even if your certain state is an absolute failure, we tend to feel way more comfortable with the familiar.
Leaning into uncertainty, rather than shying away from it is one of the keys to success in the digital economy because the rate of change requires you to become very comfortable with not knowing what will come next. If there is one thing I believe that truly does separate digital natives from laggards – it is their comfort level with the rate of change. They accept it as a "normal" part of their environment.
If you selected the wrong technology path, hired the wrong individual, or chased a market that doesn't make sense; try reframing the solution not based on the past investment but rooted in the future opportunities the alternative can bring. Uncertainty can be harnessed to mean potential rather than paralyzing fear. Your call.