I recently met with a large technology delivery and consulting firm in Europe seeking new ways to define its future. After they shared their vision, I recommended that naming uncertainty would help them create an honest dialog about what they want to be, and how they should go about getting there. Vision statements are great but a vision in a vacuum, a vision without a foundation of honest evaluation lowers the chances of vision fulfillment. A more robust vision honesty labels uncertainty and figures out how to navigate through multiple eventualities and how to monitor for uncertainties in which may collapse to a certainty. Scenarios help organizations practice multiple possible futures. Like any endeavor preparation requires practice.
On April 3, 2010, Apple roll-out the first iPad. Apple remains very much as an organization that deals with uncertainty as a strategic tool. Although they have a clear vision, their ideas reflect internal dialog about how to understand the complexities of future consumer assumptions, manufacturing shifts and developing regulatory frameworks. Those things that can’t be accomplished today may be better be achieved tomorrow through the influence of investments, strategic shifts, and nimble tactics. For most in the computer industry, the April 2010 launch of something like the iPad would be considered undoable—well, it might not be considered at all. Creating a new category is hard work, requires risk-taking and a willingness to launch a product that may not be perfect, but one that acts as the category reference. To this day, Apple dominates the tablet market. Every tablet device that ships find itself compared to the iPad.
Steve Jobs arguably drove his uncertainties to certainties, but Apple had control over only a small, localized set of uncertainties. He didn’t have control over markets, how people would view the tablet versus the PC or what applications would evolve to make the personal mobile experience even more indispensable with two screens (the iPhone and the iPad) than one. Jobs had less control than he might wish or imagine, but by confronting uncertainty he tied a strongly convicted vision into an achievable strategy.
I spent a good portion of my career in aerospace, where in many cases, although on a completely different scale of product, businesses were asked to do much the same task that Job’s took on with the iPod, the iPhone and the iPad—to deliver technology that didn’t exist at the time the idea was conceived. Rather than to discover, to invent—rather than to incrementally improve—to force technology into new shapes. As Boeing found with the 787 Max, a strategy built around incremental innovation that looks backward rather than forward, and relies on shortcuts versus excellence in execution, fails—and in aerospace that means people aren’t just disappointed, they die. Boeing should be spending now not just fixing the 787 Max, but understanding the failure of imagination that led to it.
The iPad of 2010 was the first step. A number of uncertainties remained at its launch, including technologies that had to evolve for the iPad to become what the vision held. The iPad required investment in things that could be controlled, and an understanding of those things that could not. Understanding only arrives through naming, exploring and remaining aware of how the uncertainties unfold. Any real strategy requires execution. Organizations that want to create new categories need to develop a keen awareness of their environment and an execution mindset that seizes every opportunity as it arises. That can only happen if the organization, and its people, are trained to monitor the future as it unfolds, and come to that future with permission to care about what they see and to engage with it. Scenarios that unleash possibilities can’t be fictions work over a weekend, but day-to-day tools that remind people of what to watch for and the stakes involved in not paying attention.
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