Navigating the Middle Ground

For the last few weeks, we’ve been bombarded with advice on how to make the best use of this period of lockdown. The internet is awash with potted wisdom on how to be more organized, distracted, or upgraded, while my inbox has personalized suggestions ranging from cleaning up the sock drawer to learning a new language or getting that old guitar down from the attic. Meanwhile, events unfold beyond our control in a way that adds to a sense of disempowerment and ennui.

Business Preparation Strategies 

Much the same is true for businesses. Countless articles offer pointers on planning for a post-Covid future or the best online training tools… In the equivalent of the suggestions to tidy our wardrobes, enterprises are urged to catch up on admin or, at the other extreme, prepare strategies to win market share at the expense of their less diligent competitors. For all that the counsel may be well-meaning, it generally misses the mark.

Businesses Always Have Long To-Do Lists

The reason for this will be obvious to anyone who juggles the daily demands of business or, for that matter, family life. While nobody suggests it’s not a virtue to clear our emails or catch up on personal development, the reality is that most organizations get by perfectly well with a long to-do list. And as for developing radical new strategies, it’s a brave, arguably foolhardy enterprise that places any serious bets on a future that’s beyond its knowing.As human beings, we experience the world and perform at our best when navigating the middle ground. You may like me captivated by those popular science documentaries on astronomy or quantum physics, but for all of us, the extremes of time and space are still impossible to fully comprehend. What’s more, even if we could, the knowledge would make little difference to our everyday lives that we are hurtling through space at a million miles an hour won’t save you from a speeding fine, and if you jump that red light, good luck in arguing that color is only a matter of perception!

Daily Navigating Business Decisions

Something similar is equally true of commerce. The day-to-day reality is that success comes less from having perfectly granular policies or all-embracing strategies than it does from the thousands of judgments that are the warp and weft of our trading relationships. It’s this daily grind and the grit in the oyster that comes with it that we understand best; it’s actually what motivates us, what enables us to feel empowered, and what most allows us to shine.

Practical Reasoning

Our need, then, in exiting this crisis, will overwhelmingly be for pragmatism rather than principle, and certainly not dogma. This doesn’t mean we should abandon all structures or strategic vision, but it does suggest we should focus our minds on the underlying purpose of the choices we will need to make. In this sense, the return to a new normal will require a commercial equivalent of the “practical reasoning” that’s advocated by thinkers such as Peter Singer or the late Mary Midgely. Malcolm Gladwell’s recent podcasts on the pliability of Jesuit thinking and its resolution of issues in the context of the world as we actually live it are instructive guides, too.

Keep Partnerships Strong

In re-establishing our trading partnerships, the call to exercise discretion will be greater than ever; cash flow, refunds, sales targets, or staff bonuses, pragmatic solutions, and reciprocal understanding will be the currency of success. Black Swan events term coined by Nassim Nicholas Taleb for major, unforeseen situations we are unprepared for inevitably leave us with a world that’s changed beyond previous experience. But this pandemic is not an extinction event, and it is only by working through the aftershock-instance by instance, customer by customer-that we will find and shape the opportunities that determine our future.

The reason the current lockdown is so difficult for many of us and for our organizations to bear is that despite all the well-meaning advice, no matter how tidy our socks or how ambitious our vision is, only when this quarantine is lifted can we be truly productive again. The people and the enterprises that succeed will not be those with empty inboxes or even the best-laid plans–they will be those who make the smartest calls in the mucky middle ground of decision-making that is the stuff of business as we know it.

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