The Biggest If Of All, Part II

Scott Rafer riffs on my recent post, The Biggest If Of All, where I suggest that this time it might be different, this time we may have moved into a new era, a new economy: the postnormal. Rafer says it’s just the same old same old:

@stoweboyd This purely academic question gets asked every business cycle. It was being asked on the upside in the late 90s if you recall. In this (not very) regulated financial environment, investment managers figure out how to play new conditions which makes the answer to your question “No” +/- 20%. 

Well, logically, just because someone said X would happen 15 years ago and it didn’t doesn’t mean that someone saying X now is wrong. Those are independent events, at least in principle.

My point is something else entirely. We are living in a time where uncertainty is so great that businesses and investors are finding it increasingly impossible to make judgments about where things are headed. Andrew Ross Sorkin recently wrote about this:

The Election Won’t Solve All Puzzles – Andrew Ross Sorkin via

“Uncertainty” has become the watchword over the last several years for many chief executives, politicians and economists as an explanation — or perhaps an excuse — for the economy’s slow growth, for the lack of hiring by business and for the volatility in the stock market.

“The claim is that businesses and households are uncertain about future taxes, spending levels, regulations, health care reform and interest rates. In turn, this uncertainty leads them to postpone spending on investment and consumption goods and to slow hiring, impeding the recovery,” a group of professors from Stanford University and the University of Chicago wrote in a study that found “current levels of economic policy uncertainty are at extremely elevated levels compared to recent history.” (The professors have created a Web site,, where you can track the “uncertainty” levels.)


If you go look at the other charts – like the European Policy Uncertainty Index – economic uncertainty has been steadily rising since 2007.

We are moving from a world of problems, which demand speed, analysis, and elimination of uncertainty to solve, to a world of dilemmas, which demand patience, sense-making, and an engagement of uncertainty. – Denise CaronSo my point is different. Investors and other business people will find it harder to reason about possible futures because we have moved onto shifting ground. It’s a VUCA world, characterized as increased volatility, uncertainty, complexity, and ambiguity.

As I wrote in July, regarding our blindness regarding the postnormal climate we’ve made for ourselves,

The biggest problem is that people’s thinking patterns are stuck in the old days, and I don’t just mean their expectations about ‘normal’ weather. No, even worse is that people can’t accept the reality that in the post-normal we will never have the luxury of time to assess and then adapt. Linear problem-solving approaches will simply not work anymore.

But this is not a call for more old world leadership, characterized by moving fast, and looking for permanent ‘solutions’ to well-defined and researched ‘problems’. Instead, we need leaders demonstrating the ‘VUCA Prime’ characteristics, as Bob Johansen has styled it.


Denise Caron makes the break between the old world and the new one very clear:

We are moving from a world of problems, which demand speed, analysis, and elimination of uncertainty to solve, to a world of dilemmas, which demand patience, sense-making, and an engagement of uncertainty.

So, in this context, there is no ‘solution’ to infrastructure stress and failure based on more violent weather. We are stuck in a problem space which is fundamentally unsolvable, but we have to try to make sense of this in the context of the larger world.

For example: the financial constraints of our weakened economy mean that we may not be able to repair the interstate highway system, but we might extend and maintain the train system for people moving. Do we have the foresight to disinvest in the highway system? Can we shift from a truck-based logistics system to boats, trains, and airships for long-distance hauling?


We are just as trapped in our thinking as we are in a rapidly changing global weather system, and without leaders with the mindset and skillset geared for the post-normal world, we will never find our way out.

The analysis about weather is paralleled by our inability to logically untangle the financial mess the world is in. And it’s not that we need to get smarter, do more analysis, put more brilliant minds on it: the system is so large, interconnected, and complex that it cannot be understood. It is a complex non-linear system, barreling along as fast as we can fuel it, and it cannot be neatly reduced to a set of smaller, more easily understood parts, unless we actually start disconnecting the parts.

But are we taking steps to disconnect the world’s financial markets? To raise trade barriers, and diminish global supply chains? To require companies to only do business in one country, and to only compete in a single marketplace? To break up vertically integrated multinationals? No. And leaving aside whether this would be a ‘good’ thing in some moral or ideological sense, we aren’t doing it. If anything, the world is growing more interconnected and complex. 

At the macroeconomic level, this poses astonishing policy issues, the first of which is seeing the forest for the trees: that we’ve moved into new territory and we have no map. At the microeconomic level, the investor or business leader has a set of tools that used to work, a map that used to show the way, a compass that found north. But they don’t work anymore. They no longer point the way, or suggest that all ways forward are equally uncertain of success.

Specifically with regard to investments in tech, David Lee at SV Angel recently said ‘It has never been easier to start a company, and never harder to build one’, regarding the structural issues in the tech funding world. VC’s don’t see a clear path for a real return on investments in commerce 2.0, games, or apps that rely on Facebook, Twitter, or other platforms. And the result of that uncertainty is being reflected in a decreased amount of later stage investments. This is an echo of the international fund managers I wrote about in the first installment of The Biggest If Of All, many of whom state that uncertainty has never been greater, or of more import in the investment world. So they, like tech VC’s, are holding back, and waiting for a return to normalcy.

But what if it never comes?

We know that the changes we’ve already made to our ecological world will take at least hundreds of years to reverse. Perhaps we’ve turned a similar curve in the economic and policy world. And we don’t know what the world will look like in a hundred years or so, and perhaps there is simply no way to figure out what is going to happen in the next five years, either.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s