Having troubles dealing with uncertainty? Learn to Ski.
Probably you are thinking what on earth skiing has to do with dealing with uncertainty in the corporate world?!? Well, if you could bare with me for a minute, I will explain why I am interested in this topic, the analogy with skiing and why I believe within it lies our capacity to survive as a species.
Last week I was teaching a lecture when I gave a quick survey. I wanted to get a hold on my student’s attitude about risk. In the end the result was a staggering 73% risk aversion rate. Now, before you make assumptions about whether the result was expected or not, let me tell you that the test was taken by young business management students who were being groomed for an entrepreneurial career. So I was very surprised by such a high rate.
However, and although the sample was not representative, it does support a theory I’ve been working on which states that, when facing a scenario of high uncertainty and formidable change, people are more likely to seek refuge on familiar ground. This leads them to entrench themselves in tried and true rather than embracing risk and seeking out innovative solutions.
My interest in risk aversion began a decade ago when I opened a company whose purpose was to foster technological and innovative solutions for marketing products and services from Portuguese companies. Our goal was to present solutions that we could proudly say: your brand will be the first in the world to do this! I believed, when hearing those words, marketeers would jump off their seats and hand us their money. Instead we were met with nervousness and mind boggling questions: “ if we are going to be the first, how will we know it will work?”
To make a long story short, our business only took off when we changed our story and started selling solutions that had already been tested at least once in the Portuguese market.
It was only later that I found out about a study conducted in 2013 by Geert Hofstede about the cultural impacts on organisations which concludes that the most common trait in Portuguese culture is the aversion to risk. A trait shared by 99% of the population.
So I assumed that explained it all.
However, with the recent and most impressive results of the new president-elected of the United states, Donald Trump, whose campaign was centred in the message “make America great again”, meaning – let’s go back to the good old days, I came to realise that there is more at play. And it concerns us all.
The pace of social, cultural and economic change is accelerating exponentially. The big enabler is technological innovation. And because the pace of technological innovation is in itself accelerating, the changes in our society are far from over. Quite the contrary. And because change brings uncertainty, we can then assume uncertainty levels are higher today and will continue to rise.
Change is now the name of the game. With change comes inevitable uncertainty. High levels of uncertainty generate an environment where instability thrives, which, in turn, shakes to the very core one of humankind’s pillars – the search for safety. When shaken enough, that pushes people to hold on tight to whatever they know best – namely, the tried and true. So, paradoxically, when new attitudes and new ideas are most needed, it is precisely at this moment that people tend to seek refuge in outdated behaviours.
In a sense, dealing with uncertainty is like snow skiing for the first time. When you start down the slope down you must lean forward in order to seize the momentum and maintain your balance. However, your primal instinct screams at you to lean backwards. And if you listen to it, you will fall flat. Guaranteed. When dealing with change, your instinct tells you to go backwards and hold on to the old ways. But the old ways provide a deceptive sense of stability. And if you continue to resist and hold on tight to them, you will wipe out.
Therefore, there is no other option but to embrace change and seek out new behaviours that will help you succeed in this new environment.
This doesn’t mean you shouldn’t look back. History has mysterious ways of repeating itself and it does that because we refuse to give due attention to the past. But paying attention and mimicking are two very different things. I for one, advocate that not only should we study our history in order to avoid the mistakes of the past but we should also set our eyes on the future in a constant effort to create new paths to reach our goals our goals, over an ever changing reality.
In other words, we should lean forward while we search the best path down the hill. Easier said than done, especially for the Portuguese.
What do you think about this? I would love to know your opinion so write down a comment!