Much of management today emphasizes consistency and predictability. Mottos like, “consistency is key” sprouted into existence as machines and processes were expected to produce steady and stable results. In Yellowstone National Park, people flock to Old Faithful Geyser. It’s predictable. And people like it.
One hundred years ago, the three largest business sectors in America (by asset value) were steel, oil & gas, and mining. Forty years ago, two newcomers made it to the list, with the top three being oil & gas, technology, and telecom. Now, the top three categories are technology, financial services, and medical (Forbes, America’s Top Companies, 1917-2017). The four largest companies now are Apple, Alphabet, Microsoft, and Amazon, all technology companies. All of these firms created something that, at the time, was unpredictable and disruptive. Being disruptive increasingly has become a virtue.
Scientists at Northwestern University studied the mobility pattern of random cell phone users. Astonishingly, they found that human behavior is 93 percent predictable. In their study, predictability “represents the probability we can foresee an individual’s future whereabouts…based on…previous trajectory.” We’re unaware of how predictable we are.
Consider your executive conversations. How frequently do the various stakeholders take familiar, predictable, perspectives? How often does inertia push new initiatives back into old directions and pathways? Big, Hairy, Audacious Goals, fill the planning boards with no regard to the current preferred patterns of all the stakeholders. Humans like predictability. But it is overrated in terms of strategic leadership. But there is an option: Coherence.
We don’t much use the verb cohere, and it is high time we brought it back into use. To cohere is to hold together, to be united in principles. Instead of emphasizing predictability, leadership’s greater responsibility is emphasizing coherence – to cohere the unpredictable into something that can be made into a useful product or service. It is hard work to keep teams united in change. Harder than managing predictability. Disruption needs to be paired with coherence; that is, to cohere the team’s direction is the remedy to the angst produced by disturbing the predictability.