The future under construction

by eskokilpi

The approaches of industrial management have given us remarkable material well-being over the last few centuries, but are increasingly being criticized for not being suited to handling the needs of today. Organizations need to excel in innovation. Companies also need to embrace rapid change and uncertainty. Some of the most creative ones have even gone so far as to take a “let’s just do cool things and see what happens” approach, trying to avoid traditional governance systems. Is this yet another sign that management is in crisis?

The industrial theory of management is based on top managers choosing the future of their organization and guiding its development in the right direction. The belief is that managers can make useful forecasts and set goals. Their daily responsibility is to monitor activities to identify gaps between the goals and actual outcomes so that the gaps can be closed. Uncertainty plays a minor role. Managers know what is going on.

Every business is a set of assumptions that are taken as given, thus reducing the perceived uncertainty. The whole plan–execute cycle is a process designed to prove those assumptions correct. But assumptions are never totally right most often not totally wrong, either. Accordingly, it is quite seldom that ideas are turned into a successful business in just the way described in the business plan. Things change.

In conditions of rapid change and uncertainty, there have to be systematic processes indicating progress and new opportunities as they emerge. This is much more important than forecasting or planning. It is about testing the assumptions continuously and signalling which assumptions are helpful and which are not. It is about finding out repeatedly which of the efforts are creating value and which are wasteful. Are we on the right track? Are we progressing? What new possibilities have become visible?

Lean thinking defines value as providing benefit to the customer. Anything else is waste. But what if we really don’t know?  Then the most important business process is to find out. We have to learn what creates value for different customers in different situations. “Anything that does not contribute to learning is waste”  as Eric Ries puts it. The business challenge for a creative company is to learn fast and cheaply!

Management theory needs to leave behind the industrial, mechanistic model of reality and the belief in linear if-then, causality. The sciences of complexity, non-linear dynamics, uncertainty and creative learning are the foundations of modern, human-centric management.

The task of managers is not the reduction of uncertainty but to develop the capacity to operate creatively within it. Ilya Prigogine wrote in his book “The End of Certainty” that the future is not given, but under perpetual construction:

“Life is about unpredictable novelty where the possible is always richer than the real.”

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Thank you Eric Ries, Stu Kauffman and Ralph Stacey