I’ve been in business a long time, and big events have come and gone: the oil crisis and inflation of 1972; the crash of ’87; a couple of recessions and a few wars and 9/11, you get the picture. Sudden technology changes have done their bit as well. I’m not really sure when it was, but I think I remember times that felt stable and predictable, when we weren’t always making it up as we went in reaction to external events.

Significant shock changes have been the backdrop for business for quite a while, certainly since the financial crash. Lehman Brothers failed thirteen years ago last week, and there was instability affecting decision makers for a couple of years before that. Then there was the aftermath with the impact on banking and the Great Recession. Soon after, we had to adjust to GDPR, both for ourselves and coping with the way others reacted.

For a long time there have been significant events for business leaders to adjust to and work around but they have arrived one by one, with periods of relative stability in between. Businesses can thrive in times of external stability: decision makers can size up a situation and figure out how best to respond, and at least things won’t change much while they do their work.

Many people, including those in business, are now hankering for everything to return to normal. Stability is not the world that business decision makers like us are facing now and in the future. The difference is that there are just too many big issues with long term implications that are crowding in at once.

Whereas, in time past, there were indeed period of relative calm between the big events – sometimes five to eight years – shock size changes are now overlapping each other and affecting one another, too. The instability caused by the pandemic has a long way to run yet, and it has spawned changes that are large in their own right.

The change of behaviour in employees and employers signals a shift of power and attitide, as well as an indifference to location. The enormous acceleration of ecommerce has created all sorts of remifications and opportunities that have intersected with changes due to Brexit. We’re just beginning to see the practical implications of Climate Change on people, events and circumstances.

Yes, there are people calling the time when this or that sector will return to normality – airlines in 2024, apparently, although not business travel, which was reported to be 80% lower in the UK this September than the same peiod in 2019. The comparisons everywhere point to the interesting mind-set of people looking for something similar to the past, when there are just too many changes going on at once. The future is not going to be the past.

The only way to shift mentality from nostalgic hoping and coping, to ambitious opportunism, is to look firmly forward and be as flexible and swift to respond as you can be, working on the basis that the future is not going to be at all like the past.

  1. Look out towards the changing world around you before making decisions about what you do internally
  2. Always assume that you know much less about tomorrow than today, and that the day after is almost unknowable
  3. Be wary of committing to things that can’t easily be unwound quickly if needs be
  4. Structure what you do to outsource lower value routine, and move up the value chain and increase flexibility and choice

Peter is chairman of Flexiion and has a number of other business interests. (c) 2021, Peter Osborn