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South West

2020 – uncertain, unpredictable, and unconventional or “asparagus anyone…?”

23 Jan 2020

By Chair, Institute of Directors South West, Muir Macdonald FREng CDir
How can directors and their boardrooms anticipate what 2020 has in store after such a tumultuous 2019 and start to the New Year?  One thing is certain – our world, our business environment, is VUCA: an acronym born out of the US War College to describe the world after the Cold War - Volatile, Uncertain, Complex, Ambiguous.

Of our many responsibilities as directors, it’s our job to navigate this ambiguity to bring clarity of response to our organisations.  It’s about shaping and delivering the right strategy from understanding and reducing risks as well as spotting and grabbing the opportunities to give us that important edge.  It’s also about inspiring our people, while serving our purpose for our stakeholders and clients.  And depending on where you are on the social responsibility or sustainability spectrum, it’s about how we serve wider society, if not the planet.

Any assessment of risk and opportunity needs a view of the future.  Naturally, IoD training courses and events are very helpful at finding techniques to give us the edge in doing this, but even they don’t have crystal balls in the inventory.  Maybe Jemima Packington from my home city of Bath has the answer – she’s a fortune teller who predicts the future based on tossing asparagus into the air and interpreting the pattern they leave on the ground.  Claiming to be the world’s only Asparamancer she’s apparently predicted Brexit, England’s Cricket World cup win, the closures of Thomas Cook and Mothercare, as well as the Sussex’s split from the Royal Family.  Although her predictions for 2020 are interesting, not all are able to inform a boardroom’s strategy. But she does predict increasingly severe weather events in the UK, and Donald Trump winning a second term…

At this time of year there are the predictions of a more conventional variety, particularly from informed observers – I particularly like the Financial Times, who last year got a lot of Brexit predictions spot-on.     A quick sample this year suggests that Boris Johnson will do a Brexit deal as promised, with no extension, yet it will be a minimal free trade deal with many more details to flesh out later.  As for a US/UK trade deal in the same timescale, the prediction is, ‘no’; US election year is a time to be preoccupied with other, vote-winning, things.

As a bystander, I am in no position to offer any specific forecasts myself. But I do have some thoughts about the year and years ahead.  Yes, the world is more uncertain and more unpredictable, and  my feeling is that we’re on a course where there is no more ‘normal’.  Whether it’s climate-induced severe weather, the extraordinary actions of the government last autumn,  surprises sprung by Donald Trump, or the behaviour of Harry and Meghan – they’re not ‘normal’.  They’re surprising and they’re unconventional.

It’s human nature to react badly to surprises. For many of us we need a certain stability or predictability for our ourselves and our organisations – it might be our market, our costs or even the weather.  And we’d say change is fine so long as it’s reasonably predictable, such as IT getting cheaper, faster and smaller.  For others of us, we’re increasingly pushing the boundaries and being deliberately disruptive – typically being unpredictable for our competitors while launching a welcome new, must-have innovation for our customers.  Yet even the disrupters quite like to know their starting point and have the chance to disrupt in a way and at a time of their choosing.  They have also read their ‘good manager’ textbook and quite like a ‘no surprises culture’ within their organisations.

However the new breed of politicians and governments seem to have deliberately thrown away their copies.  Being surprising and unconventional is part of their new approach, all in an attempt to change their appeal, keep their opposition on the back foot, and ‘get stuff done’.  Whatever you might think of the party in government or the new Prime Minister, it’s unconventional by any standards – yet it charted its course to power with clarity of objective, cunning long-term strategy and a ruthless application of unconventional techniques.  Sure, the realities and complexities of governing might stop this train, yet didn’t many of us say the same about the new Trump regime three years ago?

My challenge to all of us as directors is to be ready for the unconventional – I’d predict that Brexit and the General Election are just the start.  I’d be watching No 10’s Senior Advisor, Dominic Cummings very closely.  At once he seems bonkers and clever; simultaneously mischievous and constructive.  He’s no respecter of tradition or convention and he wants to get things done – differently.  There’s something of an Elon Musk or a Steve Jobs in him – we might not like the method or the journey, but we might just like the product.

You may agree, you may not, yet whatever you think the outside world has in store, we would not be true directors if we did not give ourselves and our organisations the best chance.  At the least it’s sleeping better, coping with our increasing responsibilities and keeping the show on the road.  At best it’s creating novel opportunities and achieving something stunning.  At the Institute of Directors we believe that better directors build a better world. If you’re a director who feels the same, then do think about joining our fellowship of like-minded people.

Once upon a time, the mantra for many was, ‘change is the only constant’, and understanding that put us ahead of the pack.  Maybe those with the edge in the 2020’s will be confidently recognising that ‘unconventional is the new normal’– oh, and asparagus might be best just lightly roasted.  Happy New Decade.

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