January 11, 2017

Leaders, do you need to get with the Uncertainty Zeitgeist?

By Tony Boobier

We are delighted to welcome back Tony Boobier, one of our 15 guest bloggers in 2016, as our first guest writer of 2017. He’s obviously been having a challenging start to the year, worrying about uncertainty & even turning to pondering on our zeitgeist.

There is indeed much to worry about, after 2016 & many open questions for leaders. So, Tony’s reflections on planning for your analytics & leadership challenges is very timely.

Over to Tony, to explain why he’s been uncertain whether to select Uncertainty…

Predicting the future

Over the past few weeks I have read many predictions about 2017. There’s lots of excitement about new technologies with analytics and AI seeming to attract a lot of attention. The volatility in the economic marketplace with Brexit, Trumpet and all the uncertainties that attach will inevitably mean that there will be a knock-on effect on consumer behaviour.

I was flattered to be asked by one organisation about my own predictions for 2017 especially on the topic of data and analytics. As I collected my thoughts I realised that not only was I probably wasting my own time, but also wasting the time of those readers who were looking for words of wisdom to help with their future planning. I realised that I just couldn’t tell the future with any level of certainty – and I’m not sure anyone else can either.

In the end, I had to settle for a few alternative scenarios which hopefully would give at least some food for thought – a ‘positive’ scenario, a ‘dark’ scenario, and finally a confession that I couldn’t really make any sensible guesses, which I called an ‘Uncertain’ scenario. Honesty is always a good policy.

For the record, here they are:

A Positive Scenario

This is the scenario that I prefer, if only because my cup is normally half full rather than half empty. In my ‘positive scenario’ I take the view that many industries are reaching a ‘tipping point’ in the use of analytics. Data is everywhere, generated from a trillion devices – with that number set to grow. We have more information than we could ever dream of, even to the point of being swamped. Developments in technology which automatically sort data, will quickly help users focus on what is important. Organisations will also continually try to understand, how best to gain insight at the lowest possible cost, leading to rapid innovation in the data and analytics industry, which integrates different tools and technologies.

But even in my positive scenario, I still have to recognise that many companies are still struggling, with implementation of data-driven strategies and that there is a shortage of skilled people with both technical and industry-specific knowledge. So could 2017, despite these caveats, be the start of a new ‘Golden Age’ of analytics?

A Dark Scenario

This is the one that keeps me awake at night. It reflects the concerns of businesses, who are entering a massive period of uncertainty. A combination of Brexit, Trumpet, the volatility of the economic environment and over-hyped expectations – all lead to a recipe for stagnation in the use and development of analytics. Despite the abundance of data, analytics are key to extracting the value from that often-fragmented information.

At a time when companies should be increasingly their expenditure on analytics, to provide them with greater insight, better operational control, financial visibility and increased prediction; their lack of confidence might mean they are reluctant to do so. There may be a downturn in investment, and technology startups may begin to starve. We could even be entering a form of ‘Technology Winter’. Perhaps one way to avoid such a ‘Tech Winter’ happening will be by greater honesty from vendors and experts about the true benefits from analytical insight.

An Uncertain Scenario

This is the one that I find the most exciting, if only because it will feel (for many) like being on a rollercoaster ride. It recognises a commercial environment, that is changing at breakneck speed, taking its leaders into unprecedented territory. Some will view this as an opportunity, others will view it as a threat. In both opportunity and threat, there will inevitably still be a focus on cost management, and employees will be fearful of job cuts. But even in this uncertain state, remaining the same and weathering the storm is unlikely to be an option. As Darwin put it, it’s not the strongest who will survive, but those most able to adapt.

Which to choose?

Of the three alternatives, I suspect the most likely will be the third one, that of uncertainty. Who in honesty could have predicted the outcomes of 2016, so why should we be any different entering 2017? Perhaps ‘Uncertainty’ has become the zeitgeist, or ‘spirit of our time‘? If that’s true, how do we react to this turbulence?

It’s also going to be a tricky time for all those involved in the creation, marketing, distribution and sale of consumer products. Currency fluctuations and political gamesmanship will increasingly affect the global supply chain. How will consumers react? Will they save for a rainy day (in a climate of low-interest rates) or will they spend? As always, there will not be one single behaviour but rather multiple approaches based on demographic, stage of life, location, age and others key characteristics. Channel complexities are bound to cloud the issue – and in some cases will lead to cannibalization of existing more traditional routes to market. The need for greater customer insight has never been more critical – and for some businesses it could be the difference between success and failure.

Real-time analytics remains important, of course, but it’s also becoming increasingly important that analytical insight is taken in context. How does the performance of my business compare to that of my competitors? After all, which organisation operates in a bubble?  I foretell a new breed of insight which I call ‘contextual analytics’. From a technical point of view, it places greater emphasis on sentiment analysis, data mining and interpretation by industry experts.

Leadership in our Zeitgeist

I wanted to conclude by reflecting on the topic of leadership. One key starting point, for leaders, is to emphasise the need for them to correctly understanding their own situation; in a timely manner. Self-awareness or ‘mindfulness’ will inevitably prevent them from jumping to incorrect conclusions. One of the modern trends, is that leaders have to be seen to be taking action – 30 / 60/ 90 day plans – and some even suggest that failing to act is almost a bigger crime, than doing the wrong thing. For leaders to act in a timely and effective way, don’t they not only need to understand their own position, but also those who are around them?

Leadership can be compared to being the Captain of a ship – relatively easy in calm waters, but requiring skill and experience when the waters are stormy; as they are likely to be in 2017. Analytics will not provide all the solutions but will provide an effective compass. Beyond this, it’s going to be a time for leaders to have a clear head and steady nerves. Isn’t an effective work-life balance also one of the essential ingredients, for putting leaders in the right frame of mind to make the right decision?