Does it suffice just to call the times in which we live ‘uncertain’?

With Trump in the White House, Putin on the rampage in cyberspace and Brexit looming, to say nothing of the ANC’s Presidential succession battle on our own doorstep, you might be forgiven for trying out some more robust words: ‘dangerous’ or ‘alarming’ or ‘fraught’ or even ‘frightening’. But whatever epithet you pick, what is certain is that business leaders need to be better prepared than ever to deal with all this ambiguity.

But how do you in fact prepare for a future that is essentially unknowable?

No, buying a crystal ball or throwing the bones won’t help you. Instead, you need to read Acumen’s ace futurologist Dion Chang who says you’re going to need to become ambidextrous.

The concept comes from two US business school professors, Charles O’Reilly of Stanford and Michael Tushman of Harvard. It’s developed in their new book, Lead and Disrupt: How to Solve the innovator’s dilemma, in which they ask why so many very large, well-financed and well-staffed corporations have failed in the face of new technology while others have succeeded? Among the failures are the likes of Blockbuster, Kodak, Rubbermaid and Bethlehem Steel. On the still-going-strong side of the ledger, they list the likes of Netflix, IBM, GKN and BF Goodrich.

O’Reilly and Tushman’s conclusion is that the latter can attribute their success to “ambidextrous leaders who were able and willing to exploit existing assets and capabilities in mature businesses and, when needed, reconfigure these to develop new strengths.”

The failures, say the pair, came about because “the leaders of these companies were rigid in one way or another - unable or unwilling to sense new opportunities and to reconfigure the firm’s assets in ways that permitted the company to survive and prosper.”

Their analysis and insight is acute, but I contend that these are the same qualities needed to lead in uncertain times, such as the ones we face at the moment. These qualities have also been described elsewhere as agile management, including the ability to see many different points of view.

Yet another approach is Defence/Offence (Defend and Attack, if you don’t like the Americanism!) which suggests that companies need to ensure existing operations are as slick, low-cost and efficient as possible, while maintaining a notable war chest and scanning the horizon intensely for new trends and opportunities. When the opportunity appears, the company can pounce quickly. This was the modus operandi described by Naspers Chairman Koos Bekker to me in Acumen 18, as he recounted his phenomenal success with Chinese internet company Ten Cent.

In this edition, I write about the local and global problems facing South Africa, but our Cover Story features someone who has spent his life not only facing some extraordinary challenges but also reconfiguring his career in a truly ambidextrous and agile manner. Just-retired Deputy Chief Justice Dikgang Moseneke was not only a student activist jailed on Robben Island for ten years, but also became a fine trial lawyer, BEE pioneer with NAIL, and chairperson of newly privatised Telkom, before ascending to the Supreme Court.

What makes him truly special, from Acumen’s point of view, though, is his absolutely clear understanding that South Africa has 25 million people living in abject poverty and that to lift them out requires jobs. Jobs which are created by business. As he says in his new memoir, “Businesses matter.”

It’s a message that needs to be trumpeted by every politician right across the political spectrum, but just saying the words is easy. Turning them into meaningful, sustainable action is fiendishly difficult, especially in such uncertain times at home and abroad.

Success will need a very special kind of ambidextrous and agile leadership.


Multiplication is the Name of the Game

Multiplication is the Name of the Game

New Words, Old Tale

New Words, Old Tale

Power to the People

Power to the People