In this VUCA world, it’s essential to have the courage to admit that you don’t know what the future holds. We speak to Atif Sheikh, CEO and founding partner at Business 3.0, and speaker at our Future Talent conference, to find out why you should embrace the unknowns that define our future.

Want me to follow you? Tell me where we’re going.

It doesn’t sound like an unreasonable request does it? After all, if I were at the head of the group and asking you to follow me into the fog ahead, you would probably have more than a few questions for me. “What’s on the other side?” “Is it worth the journey to get there?” “What dangers might lurk within?” “Is there another way round?” “Why on earth are you in charge?”

Replace the word ‘group’ with ‘25,000 employees’, and ‘fog’ with ‘market disruption’ – and this is not dissimilar to the situation modern day business leaders find themselves in. Traditionally reliable growth levers – incremental innovation, efficiencies of scale, massive research and development investment – are not generating the relatively easy and sustained returns they once used to. Traditional competitors don’t seem to be the main threat any more – replaced instead by companies that are better equipped to take advantage of data, digital experience and disruptive thinking.

The complex ecosystem of business  

The evolution of business is not unlike the evolution of warfare – from big pitched battles with well-defined enemies to asymmetric guerrilla warfare with newly-emerging and ever-shifting affiliations. In his 2009 book, The Age of The Unthinkable, Joshua Cooper Ramo argues that the world has now become so interconnected and is moving so fast that it is nearly impossible to correctly predict what will be happening in five years’ time, let alone in 10 or 20.

He quotes a science experiment where physicists dropped one grain of sand onto a perfectly level dish every second – and then tried to identify patterns as to when the resulting pile of sand would collapse. They found they couldn’t predict whether it would be the 5,000th grain of sand, or the 50,000th, that would trigger a mini avalanche. The ecosystem created by 5,000 grains of sand and the interconnections between them all became so complex that it was impossible to track and analyse every action and reaction occurring within.

This complicated ecosystem is much like the modern market – globalisation, digital platforms and rapidly evolving customer behaviour have created a world where organisations like Uber or Air BnB can appear and transform the landscape seemingly out of thin air. This then is the fog which executive teams face, and into which they are asking us to plunge.

The need for courage

So – what to do? As a leader it’s important to map out where you need to go as a team to “win” – only then will you be in a position to take people on a journey with you and ensure your teams have the talented people with the right skills-set to achieve business objectives.

In such a volatile world, predicting the future has become a fool’s errand. It would take a brave man or woman to stand up and speak with authority about what will happen. But this is precisely the point. Courage is exactly what is needed from the modern CEO – not the courage to say what will occur, rather the courage to admit that they don’t know for sure what will happen. Equally just shrugging your shoulders and saying “search me” isn’t likely to have people thronging in support of your plan.

There is a third way – what I would call ‘point of view’. Taking a stance on what might happen, talking about your beliefs about the future threats and opportunities that confront your business. This is the currency leaders need to develop in order to gain the trust of employees and take them on a journey.

Having a point of view on the future of your industry will not only give people something to hold onto as they navigate the fog, it will give them the motivation to start questioning old assumptions, changing their behaviours and learning new skills. We all shrink from the unknown, from the dark abyss. But having a tangible picture of the future gives us something to latch onto – a small element of certainty that gives us the confidence to step forwards.

Unfortunately operating from robust data sets alone won’t get you there. Instead, leadership teams need to take time to explore the various signals from the future in and around their market – and then they need to use these to develop a point of view.

What do I mean by ‘signals from the future’? Yes data is key. But the world is moving so fast – just ask worried executives at Google and Facebook – that data sets generated through statistical analyses will only hold true for so long. It is critical that you also look at the fringes – and extrapolate new consumer behaviours, however unrelated the change seems to your category. Companies who just dig around their market can miss the stepping-stones that are starting to pave way to new habits – which are often being laid down in totally unrelated industries. The rent and share economy for example started in the land of products, with the likes of eBay changing the way we buy stuff. Meanwhile, big hotel players were keeping their eyes on travel trends, socialising shifts and leisure breakthroughs – and failed to spot how eBay might translate into Air BnB.

Remember – the iPhone was only launched eight years ago. Five years ago if someone had told us we would be wearing watches that can make phone calls, diagnose our health, and be used instead of a credit card most of us would have laughed. The stuff that feels like science fiction now may very well be happening at scale in just a few years’ time.

So, let this be the challenge to leadership teams across industries. Tear up your trends presentations, set aside your strategy PowerPoint. Get out of the office, explore the fringes and start thinking expansively about where your market could go and what that could mean for your plans, your people and your future talent.

Develop potential scenarios without worrying too much about getting to the right answer. Argue fiercely around what is likely and what is less likely. And emerge eventually with a point of view on where the world is going – and what we are going to need to do about it.