Leadership Lesson: Doing business in the “I don’t know”

Published in the Phoenix Business Journal on May 3, 2019

Uncertainty. We do not like it, yet we are stuck with it. Even when we think we know, there is a chance that we can be wrong. In the accelerated velocity of today’s business world it is increasingly difficult to obtain certainty. OK, so our IT systems give us more certainty — or so you think. 

When was your last IT outage? What was the impact? Or, an unexpected cancellation of a large order, the loss of a major customer, a bad calculation in a critical financial report, a gorilla of a new competitor, and more? Is there a possibility of dealing with managing unexpected events? Here is a clue:

“First you jump off the cliff and you build your wings on the way down.” – Ray Bradbury, author

Poor planning and single-strategy failures

Up front, many business disasters can be avoided by avoiding single-strategy plans.

Kodak got blurry when it was too late to combat the onslaught of digital photography. The original American, United, Northwest, and other airlines were permanently grounded when they failed to recognize the strategic strength of low-cost airlines. Digital Equipment and other minicomputer companies stopped running when the personal computer juggernaut outran them. They all waited too long to jump off the cliff of change.

But Howard Shultz, upon acquiring the original Starbucks store, instituted the parallel strategies of: introducing expresso and other variations of coffee and transforming the “coffee shop” into a community gathering place.

Premeditate or react?

React. Most of us are reactors to unforeseen events. Bradbury’s advice, then, is sound. Start dealing with unplanned adversity quickly and learn your way through it as best possible. A solution, but not the best one. 

Premeditate. Prevent as much uncertainty as possible, minimize the effects of unplanned events, remediate the aftermath of those unfortunate happenings that could not be prevented (or were not prevented).​


We cannot prevent every damaging event. But we can anticipate many. Welcome to risk management. Find a full-time or part-time strong person to take it on. Their role is to work alone and with teams to outline every conceivable area in the organization that could go wrong. Then outline actions to prevent as many unfortunate events as possible. With full support from the leaders of the organization. And complete awareness of priorities, impacts, and costs. Prevent fires.


If an undesired occurrence cannot be completely prevented, perhaps it can be contained in a way to lessen its effects. Use the list developed for “Prevention,” above, and decide in advance what actions will be taken to minimize the damage. Put processes in place that people will follow to dampen a bad situation. Fight fires.


A disaster happens and it could not have been prevented nor minimized. Now what? Have a plan in place to repair the situation as quickly and efficiently as possible. Knowing ahead of time can save time and cost – and sometimes stop the spread of the damage. Clean up after the fire.

The greatest damage done from events that are born out of uncertainty is to do nothing about them – before, during, or after.

The bottom lines

“I don’t know.” We all live with uncertainty. But if we knew about potential risks, what would we do other than react? Plan. Plan to prevent, plan to plan to mitigate, and plan to remediate. If all else fails, jump off the cliff grow wings. Solve the problem.

Click here to read this article on the Phoenix Business Journal site.