Companies everywhere labor under the illusion that the key to a great strategy is a good handle on the future. But meteorologist Edward Lorenz demonstrated that small differences can have massive consequences or none at all, which means that unless you have a perfect, complete picture of existing conditions, forecasting the future with any precision is impossible. Instead, advises Bain’s Michael Mankins, companies should focus on making themselves better able to cope with unexpected changes. For strategy, that involves instilling an adaptive mindset among managers, building in flexibility into operations, creating dynamic plans.
Senior executives often lament, “If we only had better forecasts, we could devise better plans.” They pressure their teams to come up with more accurate projections for how their markets will evolve, competitors will respond, and consumers will react — thinking that forecast precision is the key to defining winning strategies.
But attempting to develop precise forecasts is a fool’s errand. Meteorologist Edward Lorenz proved this nearly 60 years ago when he popularized “the butterfly effect.” He suggested: “A butterfly flaps its wings in the Amazonian jungle and subsequently a storm ravages half of Europe.” While this statement is often interpreted as meaning “small things can have big impacts,” Lorenz’s insight was actually far more profound: In complex systems, small changes in one variable may have no effect or massive ones, and it is virtually impossible to predict which will turn out to be the case.
Before Lorenz’s work, forecasters assumed that an approximate specification of initial conditions would yield an approximate prediction of future outcomes. Lorenz’s modelling proved that assumption to be entirely false. He found that without a perfect delineation of initial conditions, predictions are useless.
Today, the butterfly effect is almost universal. Our world is more complex and interconnected than ever before. Increasing globalization, advances in telecommunications technology, shifts in consumer preferences, geopolitical instability, and countless other factors have made the future largely unpredictable. Capturing all these relationships in a reliable forecast is impracticable.
So, what should executives do? In Bain’s work with clients, we advise executives operating under extreme uncertainty to make sure that their strategy-making is characterized by a willingness to adapt, inbuilt flexibility, and dynamic planning.
Willingness to Adapt
Stephen Hawking is famously credited with saying: “Intelligence is the ability to adapt to change.” If it is impossible to predict what is around the corner, then the secret to success is adapting quickly to what appears.
The Covid-19 pandemic serves as testimony to the importance of adaptability. In early 2020, almost no company’s strategic plan forecast the impact that the global pandemic would have on business. The most successful companies (e.g., Zoom, Amazon, GrubHub, Disney) quickly adapted to the impact that work-from-home orders and other restrictions placed on workers and consumers. Some expanded capacity in response to the sudden surge in demand; others altered their delivery model to serve customers in new and different ways.
Less successful enterprises (say, most commercial airlines and hotel operators) could not — or did not — adapt. These companies saw their revenues and profits plummet. If Covid-19 has taught us anything it’s the importance of being able to pivot quickly in response to sudden changes in the external environment.
In volatile times, flexibility has enormous value. As an analogy, consider sailing. In choppy waters, sailing upwind can be extremely challenging — steering as close as possible to the wind can mean pounding into the waves, which slows the boat down. Instead, falling off of the wind can give you a better angle to the waves and allow you to build up speed. While longer by distance, this maneuver is almost always faster, largely because it’s more flexible.
A few industries have already recognized the value of flexibility in the face of extreme volatility and altered their strategies accordingly. Take aluminum production. The future returns on capital projects, such as investments in new smelter capacity, depend upon highly volatile prices for electricity and aluminum. Price uncertainty means that there may be times when the cash inflows from aluminum sales are insufficient to cover production costs, or (stated differently) lower than the revenues that could be derived from the sale of co-generated or contracted power. Most aluminum producers have strategies that enable them to temporarily suspend production during periods of high energy prices and sell available power to the grid. The few aluminum producers that have stuck with rigid, production-only plans have experienced dramatically lower returns than those opting for more flexible strategies.
Another example: sourcing strategy. Today, supply chains are being assailed by a host of exogenous factors. Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, for instance, has cut-off the flow of raw materials such as titanium, nickel, and neon. China’s zero-Covid policy has temporarily halted manufacturing in some sectors, hampering the production of everything from automobiles to smart phones. Companies with flexible supply networks, capable of sourcing from multiple suppliers in different regions, have found it easier to cope with these — and other — disruptions. Those with rigid supply chains continue to struggle in the current tumultuous environment.
In an unpredictable world, it might be tempting to throw up your hands and give up on planning altogether. But great performance is rarely the result of happenstance. It requires a direction, even if it isn’t possible to define the exact path.
To better cope with extreme volatility in crafting strategy, companies must change the way they approach strategic planning. They must evolve from a static, plan-then-do model to a dynamic and continuous approach to strategic decision-making and execution.
Dell Technologies was one of the first to adopt this new model shortly after Michael Dell took the company private in October 2013. The company shifted from a traditional planning model — where managers developed a fixed strategic plan each year — to an approach focused on continuously identifying and making critical decisions. This new model — combined with new techniques for making strategic decisions under uncertainty — has enabled Dell Technologies to increase its operating profits by more than four-fold since 2013. Leadership at Dell did not give-up on planning. Instead it adjusted the company’s model to be more fit-for-purpose, given the increasingly uncertain world of technology.
Today’s unpredictable age demands new notions of strategy. As I argue here (and in an HBR article with my Bain colleague Mark Gottfredson, Strategy-Making in Turbulent Times) rigid plans — based on deterministic forecasts — must be discarded and replaced with a more dynamic and decision-focused approach. Flexibility and adaptability must move to the forefront of leadership’s thinking. Otherwise, too many businesses will fall victim to the vagaries of the butterfly effect.
How to Build Upon the Legacy of Your Family Business — and Make It Your Own
Founded by Henry Ford in 1903, the Ford Motor Company rocketed to success by mass-producing reliable, low-priced automobiles. When Henry’s son, Edsel, took the helm in 1918, he championed a different strategy for a new era. He sought to replace the Model T — iconic but outdated — with a more modern design geared to high-end and foreign markets, and later embraced compromise with labor amid the suffering of the Great Depression.
But Henry could not let go of Ford’s origin story, undermining his son at every turn. The result was declining sales and years of labor strife that left the company on the brink of collapse by the 1940s. It was only the efforts of Edsel’s son, the more forceful Henry Ford II, that saved the auto giant from bankruptcy.
In family enterprise, generational transitions often pit one narrative against another: tradition versus innovation, continuity versus change. Indeed, when older generations craft painstaking succession plans or build elaborate constraints into trusts or shareholder agreements, they are really constructing a story: about the values and life lessons that helped them succeed, and that they hope will do the same for their children. Younger generations, however, must often adapt this narrative to their own goals and values, along with the changing world around them.
Failure to reconcile conflicting narratives can spell ruin for a family business or the waste of a financial legacy, as it nearly did for the Fords. To avoid this fate, families need to think differently about the stories they tell.
The value of critical distance
Conventional wisdom holds that family heritage, like wealth and reputation, “belongs” to the older generation. In this telling, succeeding generations are merely stewards or caretakers. They are given an inheritance or entrusted with the family business — and then charged with not frittering it away or screwing it up. Framed this way, a legacy can feel more like a burden than a gift.
Of course, it’s not as simple as that. Research suggests that younger generations do value their family heritage, especially as a source of traditions more motivating than money alone, and are motivated to preserve it. According to a 2021 survey of 300 Canadian business owners by the Family Enterprise Foundation, nearly 90% of next-generation family business leaders believe it is important to preserve a legacy.
But younger generations also want something more from that heritage: a sense of purpose, a collective identity for the family, the seeds of new entrepreneurial gambits, permission to go their own way. And as our own research shows, next-generation leaders are uniquely positioned to find what they are looking for in the family story.
Older generations often identify closely with the family or the family business, which can actually obstruct key learnings from the past. Eager to protect the family’s reputation, they may downplay scandal or setback rather than learn from it. By contrast, our analysis of 94 family businesses shows that younger generations tend to have more critical distance from the family story. This lets them grapple with its difficult chapters and respond appropriately, whether by making amends for past misdeeds or by reforming business practices going forward. It also frees them to draw insights from their story that can fuel innovation and sustainability.
Legacy as a source of purpose
How, then, can the next generation build on their family legacy while recasting it as their own? Our research and experience suggest four strategies for next-generation leaders.
1. Seek out role models in the family story.
Some next-generation leaders hesitate to embark on risky new ventures outside the traditional scope of the family business. Locating exemplars in the family story can legitimize a new way forward.
One third-generation CEO used this approach to advance his vision for a more sustainable enterprise. Fredo Arias-King, head of Mexican pine resin producer Pinosa Group, had lamented the disappearance of Mexico’s ancient pine forests that threatened both the industry and the communities that depend on it. Then he stumbled onto the published speeches of his grandfather, company founder José Antonio Arias Álvarez, who had preached environmental stewardship. “I don’t think he could have known just how devastated the forest would eventually become,” said Arias-King, “but somehow my grandfather knew that planting trees would become extremely important.”
Affirmed by his grandfather’s words, Arias-King helped found Ejido Verde, a nonprofit that would later become an independent, for-profit enterprise. By making no-interest loans to farmers and communities, with pine resin as the means of repayment, the organization promotes reforesting through new pine plantations.
2. Forge an identity beyond the founder-entrepreneur.
It’s easy to revere the family’s wealth creator. For the two adult grandchildren of one founder-entrepreneur — a private equity pioneer who rose from poverty to become one of America’s richest people — that was the problem. They wanted their own children, beneficiaries of a generation-skipping trust, to know the person behind the legacy that would pass to them. So they engaged one of us (John Seaman) to probe beyond the classic rags-to-riches tale they had heard growing up.
The founder, they learned, was a gifted yet deeply troubled man. This more nuanced understanding enabled the two generations to have a frank conversation about the issues raised by their ancestor’s life: the obligations of a business to its workers and communities; the consequences of untreated mental illness; and the unfair burden often shouldered by women in wealthy families.
This conversation, in turn, led members of the fourth generation, all in their twenties, to rethink their roles in the family enterprise. One set aside her qualms about joining the family business and put herself on a path to succeed her father as president, but with a determination to nudge the company’s private equity portfolio toward impact investing. Another resolved to pursue her own entrepreneurial dreams outside of the business, rooted in progressive values that were in stark contrast with her great-grandfather’s. Still another joined the board of the family foundation, where she helped steer its grant-making toward her generation’s individual passions.
By seeing their founder-entrepreneur in human terms, the family’s younger generation was able to move beyond hero worship to forge their own identities — which promised to make them responsible owners and stewards of their ancestor’s wealth and the business that created it.
3. Reckon with past wrongs to find a new path forward.
Many families have skeletons in the closet — scandal or wrongdoing they have long concealed or downplayed. (Henry Ford’s history of antisemitism and violent confrontations with unions are examples of this.) The willingness to confront these darker chapters, it turns out, can be a powerful motivation.
That was the case for the Reimann family, owners of consumer goods conglomerate JAB Holding Company and one of Germany’s richest families. The three adult children of Albert Reimann Jr., who ran the company in the 1930s and 1940s, knew they had been born of their father’s affair with an employee, Emilie Landecker. They also knew that Emilie’s Jewish father, Alfred, had been murdered by the Nazis. But it was not until 2019, when they commissioned research on the company, that a more sinister secret emerged: their father and paternal grandfather were themselves ardent believers in Nazi race theory who abused forced laborers.
It was the younger generation — Albert Jr.’s grandchildren — who were most adamant about reckoning with this secret. “When I read of the atrocities…sanctioned by my grandfather, I felt like throwing up,” recalled Martin Reimann. “I cannot claim that I was very interested in politics before…But after what happened, I changed my mind.”
At the insistence of Martin’s generation, the Reimanns paid compensation to former forced laborers and their families. But they did not stop there. They refocused their family foundation on combating antisemitism and strengthening democratic institutions. They also renamed the foundation in honor of Alfred Landecker, making him the narrative driver behind the more fundamental change they sought. Far from an isolated act of corporate atonement, then, this was an attempt by the next generation to use lessons from their family heritage to build a more just future.
4. Leverage the family story as a source of competitive advantage.
For some family business entrepreneurs, the next venture can begin with a step back. So it was for British restaurateurs (and sisters) Helen and Lisa Tse, whose family heritage empowered their rise.
Their grandmother, Lily Kwok, had emigrated from Hong Kong in 1956 and settled in Manchester, where she and her daughter Mabel built one of Britain’s first Chinese restaurants. But the business eventually went bankrupt, the victim of racism and Chinese gangs.
The story might have ended there. Instead, Helen and Lisa picked up the threads of their family narrative and carried it forward. Abandoning successful professional careers, they established their own Manchester restaurant, Sweet Mandarin, in 2004. But the restaurant only took off when Helen published a best-selling memoir about her grandmother. With this narrative platform, the sisters branched out into other endeavors, like cookbooks and cookery classes, tied to their own life stories.
For the Tse sisters, family heritage proved to be a source of competitive advantage. By recovering an immigrant’s tale with universal appeal, they gained acceptance outside of their own ethnic communities. And by situating themselves in an entrepreneurial tradition spanning three generations, they created a sense of longevity that evoked quality and trustworthiness, even as they also innovated new products alongside recipes inherited from their grandmother.
. . .
Family legacy is not a monologue; it’s a dialogue, a collective story that belongs to the whole family. When families think of legacy in these terms, they empower younger generations to harness that story to their own purposes, drawing strength from their elders. Legacy, in short, becomes not a burden but a blessing — one that can help families sustain wealth and purpose long into the future.
Want to Succeed as an Entrepreneur? 14 Traits to Cultivate Now
If you had to choose one trait that you believed was the most necessary in order to succeed as an entrepreneur, what would it be and why? How can aspiring entrepreneurs cultivate it?
These answers are provided by Young Entrepreneur Council (YEC), an invite-only organization comprised of the world’s most successful young entrepreneurs. YEC members represent nearly every industry, generate billions of dollars in revenue each year, and have created tens of thousands of jobs. Learn more at yec.co.
1. The Ability to Problem-Solve
The one trait I would say is the most important to entrepreneurs is the ability to creatively problem-solve. Sometimes, solutions to business problems aren’t obvious and you have to find an out-of-the-box solution. That can be a real challenge because most people are taught to color within the lines.
You need courage, resolve and strength of character to withstand the ebbs, flows and failures that lead to successful business. The best way to get this is through experience. I’ve seen a lot of young entrepreneurs with more grit than their older counterparts, especially when they had customer service jobs and worked their way up the ladder to experience different seats in the company.
One of the most essential traits an entrepreneur can possess is flexibility. You need to be able to change your approach in response to market conditions, customer feedback and what any partners or investors want at any given time. Being flexible also means looking at “failure” as a signal to make changes rather than as a permanent obstacle.
Aspiring entrepreneurs should be fearless. It’s fear that often prevents you from grabbing new opportunities, as new entrepreneurs are unable to decide what’s best for them or how a particular decision would affect them. Well, you won’t know unless you try. So, be quick with your decisions. Preparedness is great and all, but if you’re afraid to make a move, someone else will — and will likely succeed.
To be successful as an entrepreneur, you need to focus on developing your social skills. When you have strong social skills, it becomes easier for you to build strong relationships with your customers, investors or anyone you think is important to your business. Good social skills make you a better communicator and help you make others feel secure so they connect with you on a deeper level.
One trait you need to succeed as an entrepreneur is determination. You’ll encounter people who don’t like your idea. There will be times when clients or investors reject you. Your first project idea may never see the light of day. You need to have the drive to move past these unfortunate situations if you want to find success.
Decisiveness is the main trait any successful entrepreneur needs to cultivate. From making decisions about the budget or day-to-day communication, maintaining the ability to decide and decide quickly remains imperative. I use mental models like Occam’s razor to run my life. For example, when presented with two options, I choose the simplest and I get a lot of significant work done.
8. A Realistic Mindset
Be realistic! An entrepreneur’s career is full of ups and downs, which are part of the learning process — and that’s a fact. Keeping your feet on the ground will save you much frustration when things don’t go the way you want. Instead, learn your lessons and keep moving. This will also help you to consider and prepare for multiple scenarios while adjusting along the way.
In order to be an entrepreneur, you must have some moxie. Being outspoken, direct, resilient and having the ability to persevere is something that most entrepreneurs have in common. You have moxie if you can get up after failing. Aspiring entrepreneurs can cultivate it by focusing on confidence. Stand up for what you believe in and don’t let others’ opinions or perceptions get in your way.
10. The Ability to Follow Long-Term Plans
The ability to follow and execute on a long-term plan — meaning multiple years — without being sidetracked by mirages along the way or discouraged by inevitable ups and downs is so important. This requires you to learn multiple skills, including attention to detail, deep work and strategic vision (as opposed to tunnel vision, which trips up many entrepreneurs).
11. A Willingness to Keep Learning
If you want to succeed as an entrepreneur, you should have an open mind toward learning. It’s important for you to realize that learning is an ongoing process. It can help you develop new skills that in turn can help you stay ahead of your competitors at all times.
12. A Self-Reflective Mind
One trait that can help aspiring entrepreneurs succeed is self-reflection. Embracing your mistakes and learning from them is the only way an entrepreneur can grow and be better than ever before. However, one can’t cultivate this skill by enrolling in a particular program. You have to have an open mind, give yourself the freedom to make mistakes and foster the courage to learn from them.
Resilience is one of the most important traits you can develop as an entrepreneur. The journey is going to have high highs and low lows, and it will be your ability to push through and persevere during this time that will be the difference between success and failure. To develop resilience, develop a positive mindset, build a strong support system, understand your purpose and look after yourself.
14. The Ability to Thrive on Ambiguity
The cornerstone of entrepreneurial success is in the ability to accept and thrive on ambiguity. I have found that navigating the unpredictable landscape of business ventures requires you to possess a flexible mindset that can accommodate constant change and capitalize on emerging opportunities. Always stay updated with the latest developments and treat every change as an opportunity to grow.
The Art of Risk-Taking: Lessons from Successful Entrepreneurs
Entrepreneurship is a high-risk endeavor. Starting a new business takes bravery, resilience, and a willingness to accept risks. Many successful entrepreneurs attribute their success to calculated risks and pushing themselves outside their comfort zones.
In this article, we will explore the art of risk-taking and the lessons we can learn from successful entrepreneurs.
1. Understand the Importance of Risk-Taking
Taking risks is an essential component of entrepreneurship. It is tough to develop and produce anything new without taking risks. Risk-taking is necessary for growth and progress, as successful entrepreneurs recognize. They also recognize that not every risk will pay off, but the potential rewards make the effort worthwhile.
2. Do Your Research
Before taking any risks, it is important to do your research. Successful entrepreneurs understand the importance of gathering as much information as possible before making a decision. This includes researching the market, competition, and potential customers. By doing your research, you can make informed decisions and minimize your risks.
3. Network Effectively
Networking is an essential part of entrepreneurship. Successful entrepreneurs understand the importance of building relationships with potential investors, customers, and other entrepreneurs. They attend events and conferences, participate in industry groups, and use social media to expand their network and create new opportunities.
4. Stay Committed
Entrepreneurship is a long and challenging journey. Successful entrepreneurs understand the importance of staying committed to their goals and vision, even when faced with obstacles and setbacks. They stay focused on their end goal and are willing to put in the time and effort necessary to achieve it.
5. Collaborate with Others
Entrepreneurship is often a team effort. Successful entrepreneurs understand the value of collaborating with others and building strong partnerships. They seek out individuals who bring complementary skills and expertise to the table and work together to achieve a shared vision.
6. Surround Yourself with Supportive People
Entrepreneurship can be a lonely journey. It is important to surround yourself with supportive people who believe in you and your vision. Successful entrepreneurs understand the value of having a support system and seek out mentors, advisors, and other entrepreneurs who can offer guidance and encouragement.
7. Set Realistic Goals
Taking risks is essential for entrepreneurship, but it is important to set realistic goals. Successful entrepreneurs understand the importance of setting achievable goals and breaking them down into smaller, more manageable steps. By setting realistic goals, entrepreneurs can reduce the risk of failure and stay motivated throughout the journey.
8. Stay Flexible
Entrepreneurship is a constantly evolving journey. Successful entrepreneurs understand the importance of staying flexible and adapting to changing circumstances. They are open to new ideas and are willing to pivot when necessary to stay ahead of the curve.
9. Learn from Feedback
Feedback is a valuable tool for entrepreneurs. Successful entrepreneurs seek out feedback from customers, mentors, and advisors and use it to refine their ideas and improve their products or services. They understand that feedback is not a personal attack, but rather an opportunity to grow and improve.
10. Take Care of Yourself
Entrepreneurship can be a stressful and demanding journey. It is important to take care of yourself both physically and mentally. Successful entrepreneurs prioritize their health and well-being and make time for self-care activities such as exercise, meditation, and spending time with loved ones. By taking care of themselves, entrepreneurs can stay energized and focused throughout their entrepreneurial journey.
11. Take Action
Successful entrepreneurs do not let fear hold them back. They take action and move forward, even when they are unsure of the outcome. They understand that taking action is the only way to achieve their goals and make their vision a reality.
12. Take Calculated Risks
While taking risks is important, successful entrepreneurs also know the importance of taking calculated risks. They carefully assess the potential risks and rewards before making a decision, and have a backup plan in case things don’t go as expected.
13. Trust Your Gut
While research is important, successful entrepreneurs also trust their gut instincts. They understand that sometimes you have to take a leap of faith and trust your intuition. Steve Jobs, the co-founder of Apple, once said, “Have the courage to follow your heart and intuition. They somehow already know what you truly want to become.”
14. Embrace Failure
Taking risks inevitably leads to failure at times. Successful entrepreneurs understand that failure is not the end, but rather an opportunity to learn and grow. They embrace failure and use it as a chance to improve and refine their ideas.
The art of risk-taking is a critical component of entrepreneurship. Successful entrepreneurs understand the importance of taking risks, doing their research, trusting their instincts, embracing failure, taking action, and surrounding themselves with supportive people.
Aspiring entrepreneurs can boost their chances of success and make their entrepreneurial aspirations a reality by adhering to these guidelines.
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