In business school we are taught the difference between a good decision and a bad one, and how to leverage a good one to get the most out of it. We are also taught that the best decisions are those that minimize risk and produce the highest return. On the ground, management decision-making is never that simple.
We want managers to have a vision for the long term but be flexible enough to respond to competition in the short term. We want them to produce consistent results and yet experiment with innovative ideas for growth. We want both change and stability. If change is the only constant, its constant companion is the avoidance of change.
Because the future is full of unknowns, it’s far more comfortable for managers to pursue stability by optimizing existing core business operations than to prepare for change. There is no theory to teach managers how to achieve a balance between the known and the unknown; the ability to do that comes from experience. But if your experience is defined by an unwillingness to step outside the envelope of stability, you will never know if or how the unknown may help you make a better decision. You will never think beyond the immediate tactic. You may become the world’s best manager of the known, but the least able to think strategically about the future. And the future is where the money is supposed to be. Just ask your shareholders. This unwillingness to strategically embrace the unknown is often why companies fail. When they do, we naturally apply 20/20 hindsight to expose all their wrong moves or analyze how management didn’t act fast enough or how it refused to act at all.
Sometimes management acts too slow to transform the organization when the value is shifting to other activities. Sometimes it bets on new things and fails to protect the core. Sometimes it just can’t keep up with rate of change caused by technological disruption. Is the lack of management development progress for the last 30 years a contributing factor? We produce tons of MBAs every year (it’s estimated to be over 150,000 in the US and 375,000 globally). Should we not expect companies to be smarter as a result?
In the current business climate, management tends to prioritize risk-avoidance and career protection over bold strategic action. Managers operate in fear and tend not to bring their imagination and empathy to work. They succeed by avoiding blame when things go wrong and taking credit when things go right. We forget that the best managers take calculated risks and develop strategies to encourage others to do the same.
For the strategist, the only true way to maintain a useful level of predictability is to actively engage in the shaping of the organization’s future. Through conceptualization and development of forward-looking scenarios, an organization can equip and prepare itself for the inevitable future. Our emphasis on education and management development has been on training managers more than training strategists. Today, we need strategies more than ever and we need to convert our top managers to strategists. We need to encourage and empower mid-to-senior managers to take bolder risks and become the innovative force that out-strategizes the competition.
The practice of management needs to move away from purely avoiding risks to a deeper understanding of risks and how to master them to develop business opportunities and create value. Ultimately we need to train people that are equally versatile as managers and strategists. That's why Design Thinking can play a big role. Whether you're a good manager or strategist, you also need to be a good design thinker.
This article is an except from the coming issue of MISC magazine the Balance issue which will be available in bookstores Dec 2013.