Craig Macklin MBA(FS) Class of 2014 sent in a question to Dr. Rick Nason:
“I’ve taken a position of continually considering the changing global business environment as a way to remove complacency in my strategies when improving a company’s results…what are the 2-3 most important elements you see globally, that company leaders should pay attention to so that they can start getting comfortable being uncomfortable, especially in the face of the looming recession?” Craig Macklin MBA(FS)
In the fourth installment of striving for success in 2019, Dr. Rick Nason discusses the changing global business environment, getting comfortable being uncomfortable and removing complacency in strategic thinking.
Dr. Rick Nason:
Being comfortable with being uncomfortable is likely to be a phenomenon of the 20’s; the 2020’s that is. The pace of globalization, the pace of AI and Big Data, and the pace of FinTech, HealthTech, RegTech, PersonTech, WhateverTech, combined with a demographic shift in the workforce that has not been experienced since the end of the Second World War will mean that the role and responsibilities of the manager are going to be altered like never before.
Trying to fight the onset of these forces facing the manager is a Sisyphean task. I believe that we are already experiencing the less than optimal individual managerial actions of a cohort nearing retirement who are striving to make their methods that worked in the 1980’s and 90’s effective today. This is for an age when the seemingly inexperienced millennium upstarts, with nothing more than gumption, upset another industry on an almost daily basis. It is a phenomenon that I call the “constipated middle”. That is, it is the group of relatively senior managers who are hanging on to a world that no longer exists in hopes that they can make it to retirement without being exposed. By the way, the same effect is true for those who are relying on their credentials for success, regardless of age or experience.
If you have ever been in one of my classes, or heard one of my seminars, then you know that one of my favorite quotes comes from philosopher Eric Hoffer. He stated, “In time of change, learners inherit the earth, while the learned find themselves beautifully equipped to deal with a world that no longer exists”. You need to select whether you will be learned, or a learner. Unfortunately, and ironically, as academics, we focus on being learned, despite our proclamations that we are institutions of higher learning. The evidence is clear; our focus on rubrics (please, shoot me now!), multiple choice tests, objectivity in marking, tests designed for computer marking, etc… This is reinforced with our emphasis on credentials; gotta get more letters behind my name to be competitive (and so I can be picked by the HR computer filters for a promotion)!
The first rule of becoming comfortable with being uncomfortable is to be a learner. Learn broadly. Learn creatively. Learn diversely. One of my favorite techniques when I am faced with a problem, is to go to the bookstore and buy the three magazines on topics or areas that I know nothing about and have zero previous interest in. Going into places you have never gone before not only works for StarTrek fans, but also for your ability to learn, to be creative, and to develop your dots. Managers would be much better off if they would only spend as much time and effort on their network of learning as they do on their professional networking and building their social media profile.
Being comfortable with being uncomfortable means you need to develop the skill of learning. However, this is much more than knowing stuff. Knowing stuff is a commodity; hey Alexa, what’s … ? Knowing stuff is an almost valueless commodity today with not only the developments in AI, but also the ready access to AI. The new learner doesn’t source knowledge but connects knowledge. The manager who can connect the most dots, as well as the most diverse dots, is the manager with the competitive advantage. The person who knows stuff is being replaced by a bot, or someone with a decent internet connection in an emerging economy who is willing to put in the effort to know more stuff, more efficiently, and to do it for less than you spend on coffee in a day.
What is left after AI takes away knowledge is empathy. Rita McGrath, a Columbia University professor, wrote a short Harvard Business Review article titled “Management’s Three Eras: A Brief History”. In this paradigm shifting article, she talks about how management was first about technology; how do manufacture a pin most efficiently. Then came scientific management and Taylorism; how do we optimize the assembly line. The third era, the era we are coming into, she labels the “era of empathy”, and I agree with her. Empathy is nothing more than understanding people; and I stress that empathy is not sympathy or pity. Empathy is understanding why people think and act as they do. Empathy does not mean that you agree with them.
In a related, but tangential theme, Geoff Colvin’s book “Humans are Underrated”, states that many professionals mistakenly try to fight the onset of the bots by asking: “what is it that I can do that a computer, or a bot cannot do?” Colvin’s answer is nothing! He states that the better question to ask is: “what is it that I can do that people do not want or will not allow a computer, or a bot to do?” I think he is on to something. What is left after AI takes the basic knowledge component is relationships, and I don’t mean relationships of the swipe left or right variety.
I would be remiss, as well as hypocritical if I did not mention the importance of complexity. I believe that all of the above is wrapped up in complexity. The manager of the 20’s needs to understand and appreciate complexity. That is a different set of skills, and a different set of attributes than we normally associate with management. Our management paradigms, as well as our educational paradigms, both in business education, and general education, have almost completely ignored complexity. I believe that complexity knowledge is the killer app for managers. I have a recommended reading on complexity if anyone is interested.
Ultimately being comfortable with being uncomfortable is being comfortable with being a human being, rather than some stereotype that the media and business schools give us of the business leader. Being comfortable with being uncomfortable requires humility, self-esteem, and a thrill and lust for the challenge. That’s what makes being a manager fun!
 McGarth, Rita, “Management’s Three Eras: A Brief History”, Harvard Business Review, July 30, 2014, https://hbr.org/2014/07/managements-three-eras-a-brief-history
 Colvin, Geoff, “Humans are Underrated: What High Achievers Know That Brilliant Machines Never Will”, Portfolio, 2016