Business in the Age of Disorder

As the autumn of 2016 heads, in jolting fits and starts, towards the presidential election, it brings me back to the summer of 2008.  Eight years and two elections ago, I recall a summer as disturbing and frightening as this one. Now, just as then, I open the front door to reach for The New York Times, afraid that the front page will offer another terrorist attack, racially-motivated shooting, political scandal or the hacking of private information of millions of people. In 2008, my fear was about another bank failure, another massive round of layoffs, or another precipitous stock market decline or currency devaluation.  We seemed perilously close to a global economic collapse as Barack Obama, Joe Biden, John McCain and Sarah Palin crisscrossed the country heading into the debate season. 

While the economy is better now, at least on the surface, the sense of chaos feels equally if not more threatening. The pervasive sense of disequilibrium is the core experience of what I have come to call the Age of Disorder. In the period following the 2008 crash there has been a profound restructuring of not only the economy but also of our entire way of life. And now, in our current times, that restructuring is moving to the next level.

One example of this shift is the role social media and the Internet play in our lives.  In 2008 social media, with Facebook leading the way, was fast becoming a prominent form of social interaction. The wave of fear that began with news of the financial crisis was spread through the new power of social media, swept into executive suites, down to the ranks of the organization and into the families and communities where employees live now.

Now social media has become a dominant form of social interaction and therefore a driver of this sense of disorder. Every bit of news and every trend spreads faster, so the fear that accompanied the crash dispersed well beyond the people who lost their homes, their jobs and their pensions. If Americans in 2008 still held the belief that their employer or their government would protect them from a poor economy, that belief has been virtually obliterated.

A New Kind of Social Contract

Rather than trying to find a “secure” job with an “established” institution, many Americans now see themselves as free agents. Entrepreneurs, Uber drivers, AirBnB hosts, freelancers who work for TaskRabbit or as sellers on Ebay and Etsy make up the thousands working in the gig economy. In place of a deep sense of loyalty to a company, government or nonprofit institution, many Americans feel dislodged and unhinged, floating in a turbulent sea of each person for themselves. This new form of social contract, while it creates far more insecurity, also comes with a new freedom. Individuals feel a greater opportunity to choose where to work, when to work and with whom to work. The radical disruptions of 9/11 and 2008, combined with the rise of the millennial generation (at 90 million, the largest generation in history, have created a growing emphasis on purpose in work and personal life.

When I was growing up, and through much of my career, the ideal future for a young person was to attend and graduate from college, find a secure job with a growing company or the government and to climb the ladder until retirement. That ideal began to shift through the 1970’s “Me” Generation, when Baby Boomers began expressing their individuality. It evolved further through the “greed and social status” era of the Reagan/Bush 1980’s and further through the emergence of the Internet and globalization during the Clinton years of the 1990’s. However, September 11th, 2001, plunged the United States into the Age of Disorder.

Learning to Live With Uncertainty

9/11 and the economic crash of 2008 made me understand the future was no longer predictable (if it ever was). I, like many people, have learned to manage this increasingly unpredictable world through the practice of developing long-range visions, setting strategic goals and priorities, and managing time into shorter term objectives. By setting milestones and evaluating progress, we can attempt to create order and to develop a sense of status and financial security.

One of the core beliefs of business is the crucial importance of planning for the future. Decades of research and practice in the discipline of strategic planning used to tell us that to keep growing we had to create a long term (3-5 year) strategic plan, break that plan into strategic goals, those goals into shorter term objective, then tasks, timelines, responsibilities and so forth. The discipline of strategic planning assumed you could project out into the future what your markets, competitors and customers would look like and what resources you would have.

Accepting a Different Reality

So how do we think about business and our role in it in a way that accepts the disorder and finds a successful way to adapt to it? By 2009, I began seeing the difference between the companies that were managing their way through the broken economy and those that were stricken by fear and confusion. We began encouraging our clients to ask, “What is the opportunity in this economy? What is there in this crisis that could make you a stronger company? What can you do to meet the changing needs of your customers, employees and communities?”  

Businesses and people who understand these disruptions are opportunities in disguise take the time to assess the changing landscape. Their belief that they needed to adapt and commitment to finding a way to do it (they would find the way to do it) made them grow and stronger.  Those that succumbed to denial and resistance did not.

Look at the extraordinary organizations that became iconic brands and actually grew stronger during the crisis. Google, Apple, Facebook, Amazon, TED, Trader Joes, Costco, Starbucks, Ford, Chipotle, and The Huffington Post to cite a few examples. These companies had a higher purpose and cared deeply about their customers, and this adaptability allowed them to prosper even in times of great disruption.

The events of recent history prove that the Age of Disruption is here to stay and, if disruption is the new norm, adaptation is the new way to success. With millennials leading the way, people want to work for, buy from and invest in organizations that are transparent, have a higher purpose and care about them. For companies to succeed in this new, tumultuous age they need to look to other successful companies and find the opportunity in adversity.

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​Culture of Opportunity: How to Grow Your Business in an Age of Disruption

By Mark Monchek

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