By Tony Samson
IN THE OSCAR’s best movie of 2019, Parasite, the poorer family, driven back to their now flooded home and herded into a relief center, is wondering what to do next. Their scheme to latch on to the household of their wealthy employers is unraveling. The son asks his father what they are to do next. The father replies, “the best plan is not to have a plan.” This reaction to catastrophe after all the scheming and planning the family did to displace the entrenched household help of the wealthy seems to be the only way to handle uncertainty. Well, the ending of this movie argues against the patriarch’s approach. (Okay, this is not a movie review. But for the record, it’s a must-see movie on the social classes of South Korea.)
The announcements of cancellation of events, tightened quarantines, discovered new cases in hot spots, closing down of previous destinations like resorts, malls, and offices can be bewildering.
What are your plans for the day? Oh, just staying home. Even this certainty might be upended too. But it’s still there until further notice.
Donald Rumsfeld, the former secretary of defense of the US, in a briefing on the Iraq invasion and the uncertainty of finding weapons of mass destruction in that country as the premise of the invasion, classified data into three categories — the known knowns, the known unknowns, and finally the unknown unknowns. The third category involves facts or scenarios that have not been even factored into any analysis. And it seems such an unknown unknown has hit the world at the same time.
Is it even possible to plan our next moves in such a disruptive situation?
The metaphor for planning and teamwork in business management has often been the symphony orchestra. Each musician has an instrument that he can play well (value added). He follows a score given for each instrument as the performance is led by the conductor (CEO). What if the scores are blown away by the wind and the conductor is quarantined or tested positive?
In the disruptive climate we find ourselves in, maybe the metaphor should shift to Jazz. Many jazz musicians have been hijacked by management gurus to spread the virtue of a jazzy style of doing business. This is characterized by improvisation during the performance, collaboration, trust in the other performers, and roughly (very roughly sometimes) sticking to the material like “Take Five,” famously performed by Dave Brubeck’s quartet. No performance of a jazz piece is quite the same as another, even by the same group. It depends on mood, musical ability, crowd reaction ( socially distanced) and chemistry among the performers.
Maybe, we should emulate the jazzy approach in managing through difficult times. I’m not sure how working from different homes can come up with the right music. But it might work after a few improvisations, like taking turns in a meeting. Or getting the chat group to disagree with the drums and cymbals to come up with a rousing performance.
In adjusting to the alienation of natural social networks like officemates, lunch groups, gym buddies, classmates in once-a-month coffee gatherings, we are thrown to the old village culture of the home and the neighborhood. Solitary pursuits like meditation and reading need to be rediscovered, and embraced. Let’s include here the dynamics of house debates… not the lower one. Who will wash the dishes?
Perhaps such management rules as budgeting, planning, and scheduled meetings need to be set aside. Even scenario-building can be an exercise of scaring yourself to catatonia. Can we even imagine the worst case scenario? Are the funeral parlors also closed?
Maybe, our culture provides the answer to unknown unknowns that have now visited us. The common man’s reaction to disruptions including the prospect of starvation or catching the virus eschews over-preparation and intense worrying — “Bahala na.” This phrase invokes the deity and roughly translates not to “so what” but “leave it to God” (or bathala).
Until further notice, it is best to live by the day and see what happens. Sure, you can still plan for the grocery list without falling into panic buying. But on the whole, uncertainty need not be paralyzing. It can be liberating with a chance of getting better after it gets worse. And the Japanese may already have found a cure.
Meanwhile, let’s try jazz… and take five.
Tony Samson is Chairman and CEO, TOUCH xda.