“In a big company, you never feel you’re fast enough.” Beth Comstock, the chief marketing officer of GE, is talking to me by phone from the Rosewood Hotel in Menlo Park, California, where she’s visiting entrepreneurs in Silicon Valley. She gets a charge out of the Valley, but her trips also remind her how perilous the business climate is right now. “Business-model innovation is constant in this economy,” she says. “You start with a vision of a platform. For a while, you think there’s a line of sight, and then it’s gone. There’s suddenly a new angle.”
Within GE, she says, “our traditional teams are too slow. We’re not innovating fast enough. We need to systematize change.”
“The business community focuses on managing uncertainty,” says Dev Patnaik, cofounder and CEO of strategy firm Jump Associates, which has advised GE, Target, and PepsiCo, among others. “That’s actually a bit of a canard.” The true challenge lies elsewhere, he explains: “In an increasingly turbulent and interconnected world, ambiguity is rising to unprecedented levels. That’s something our current systems can’t handle.
“There’s a difference between the kind of problems that companies, institutions, and governments are able to solve and the ones that they need to solve,” Patnaik continues. “Most big organizations are good at solving clear but complicated problems. They’re absolutely horrible at solving ambiguous problems–when you don’t know what you don’t know. Faced with ambiguity, their gears grind to a halt.
“Uncertainty is when you’ve defined the variable but don’t know its value. Like when you roll a die and you don’t know if it will be a 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, or 6. But ambiguity is when you’re not even sure what the variables are. You don’t know how many dice are even being rolled or how many sides they have or which dice actually count for anything.” Businesses that focus on uncertainty, says Patnaik, “actually delude themselves into thinking that they have a handle on things. Ah, ambiguity; it can be such a bitch.”
“Technology forces disruption, and not all of the change will be good. Optimists look to all the excitement. Pessimists look to all that gets lost. They’re both right. How you react depends on what you have to gain versus what you have to lose.”
Yet while pessimists may be emotionally calmed by their fretting, it will not aid them practically. The pragmatic course is not to hide from the change, but to approach it head-on. Thurston offers this vision: “Imagine a future where people are resistant to stasis, where they’re used to speed. A world that slows down if there are fewer options–that’s old thinking and frustrating. Stimulus becomes the new normal.”