Walking With The Drunkards

Geoff Smith Portrait

BY Geoff Smith

POSTED ON MAY 12, 2014

I've been wondering a lot lately about uncertainty and (un)predictability. Not so much because I've become suddenly profound (no worry there), but because I've been thinking hard about EllisDon's future - and wandering broadly rather than digging deeply. Our Board of Directors would like much more detail about where and how we're committed to growing EllisDon three and five years into the future, and likely they view my refusal to commit as an unwillingness to be accountable. And the Board has far less at stake than our employees, who are also very keen to know. Hell, I'd like to know myself.

So I've been doing some reading. 'The Drunkard's Walk' is a great book about randomness - I love that word - but it really amounts to a pretty entertaining discussion of probabilities (I don't get out much) and how to handicap possibilities. My problem is that I don't think we even know at EllisDon what the relative possibilities are. That is, I find it very difficult to even ask the right question, let alone find the most probable answer. How do you handicap the unknown and the unknowable, even when your Board and employees want you to do just that?

Then there is 'Thinking Fast And Slow', a terrific book about we often fail to understand the decisions we are making. Give it a read. But in my darker moments, it makes me worry that even if I had definite clues about the future, one side or the other of my brain might cause me to screw them up anyway. (I should probably just watch TV.)

But here is my serious question: Why do we need to know? Where's the big advantage in certainty? What are we all so afraid of? If you are confident in yourself and everyone around you, wouldn't you view uncertainty as a very advantageous situation? If your rivals greet the unknown with a fixed plan, and you greet the day saying 'Bring it on, pal, I'm ready' - who's going to win?

Dealing with the obvious: Preparation, discipline, skills and also courage are key. In times of change, only the best companies get a shot. And it's crucial to think very hard about what is definitely coming and what may be coming, so that you are as ready as possible. That hard work gives you the confidence to say 'We have zero certainty about what's about to happen. That's our strength'.

I'm suggesting that maybe the need for certainty is just fear. Not strength, but weakness.

Perhaps I'm overthinking the whole thing. Jim Collins keeps it much simpler. Chapter 7 of his 'Built To Last' book is titled 'Try A Lot Of Stuff And See What Works'. Its gist is that great companies don't try to predict the future, but rather practice high levels of unplanned, undirected activity and experimentation that produce all kinds of new, unexpected successes. Either way, the people at these companies weren't afraid of uncertainty, the unknown, or of making mistakes. They definitely were not afraid of the future, even though they had no idea what it held.

Or just take my Dad's advice. I asked him a few years ago to write out his 'New Year's' advice for our employees, and one of his eight points was, I thought, particularly brilliant. He wrote 'Don't worry, it may never happen'.

Maybe take the Drunkard's Walk. Your more sober rivals will never keep up.

Thanks for reading. Peace.