Recessions are a good time to disengage from businesses and practices that are weak and under pressure—but the volatile environment demands that managers let go of old approaches.
The depressing headlines are only the latest manifestation of a trend that has been long in the making: the encroachment of Schumpeter’s famous “gales of creative destruction” over what were once relatively stable, even mature, businesses.1 Unfortunately, leaders of many of today’s more mature organizations don’t have the right mindset or practices to help their organizations survive. They grew up with management practices suited to a different age—one with higher barriers to entry, greater transaction costs, fewer capable competitors, growing and increasingly affluent markets and far less information. The environments they are facing now, however, are less predictable, more complicated and more volatile.
THE DOWNTURN MANIFESTO
A manager’s guide to surviving—and thriving—in recessionary times Read more in this special report »
The result is that many of the core businesses—involved with what may be boring old, mainstream, mature products and services that everyone has taken for granted—are themselves becoming more uncertain. As uncertainty increases, companies are finding themselves facing what we call a high ratio of “uncertainty to knowledge.” This is a problem because making decisions based on old assumptions often leads to unfortunate outcomes. Human beings have a tendency to embrace information reinforcing their pre-existing beliefs, while challenging or rejecting information that calls these beliefs into question.2 At the same time, many established management tools, such as net present value, are built on a foundation of assumed certainty—that it’s realistic to forecast likely cash flows into the future and discount them to today. In volatile business environments, such thinking is no longer practical. The good news is that other, more suitable approaches can be adapted from the practices used by successful fast-growth companies, entrepreneurs and corporate new-business-development groups that have always had to navigate unpredictable, resource-constrained and surprising environments. In an unpredictable world, trying to be right can lead managers terribly astray. Therefore, we favor a “discovery-driven” approach that emphasizes searching for the right answers and reducing the assumption-to-knowledge ratio.