The Importance of Confronting Brutal Facts

After I wrote about the importance of seeing it coming in last month’s newsletter, a subscriber wrote in to affirm what he called the “strong message.”

Mark Frandsen is a CEO, a former Fortune 500 CMO in the foods industry, and a university board member who lives in Portland, Oregon. A long-term reader of this newsletter, Frandsen offered a specific example of where strategic foresight may have avoided crisis at the university where he serves.

We Didn’t see it coming Video

Ten years ago, he explained, a new university president had warned the board that adverse demographic trends would impact the college with potentially threatening conditions in the coming years. As she looked ahead at declining numbers of high school students and enrollments, she saw the need to confront what Frandsen termed the “brutal facts.” History proved her prescient. Declining enrollments have since caused the closure of over 100 universities and colleges in the United States, while many others are struggling financially. Indeed, Harvard Business School professor Clayton Christensen predicts that 50 percent of colleges and universities will bankrupt before the new decade is out.

“With her leadership we prepared to compete,” recalled Frandsen. “And we have since remained strong with an ever-improving product for our undergraduates. It has been a constant challenge, but we were able to see it coming and to prepare.”

See it coming and prepare for change. That’s an excellent credo for success in the 2020s. And not just for colleges facing extinction, but for all of us. If you think the rate of change will slow down in the coming years, think again. The 2020s will be full of gargantuan threats and incredible opportunities. We’ll see friends and neighbors and regions and whole populations blindsided by change, whether from automation or disruption or climate change. We’ll see more companies like Blockbuster, Sears, Kodak and Nokia be hit by massive technological change and sudden consumer shifts.

And for those who are willing to spend time figuring out the future, and face up to sometimes brutal facts, I predict prosperity and good fortune.

Mark Frandsen’s career is a case example in how to navigate change. I’ve followed Mark’s career since he invited me to speak at Knott’s Berry Farm decades ago. Mark is a strategist, a forward thinker — always plotting his next move. He’s been willing to take risks in navigating his career, including uprooting his family more than once to pursue a promotion or a career opportunity.  Mark has always been about pouncing on emerging opportunities — and above all, facing up to “brutal facts.”

Yet, everywhere we look these days, an alternate reality seems to be taking root. I find that more and more important persons have stopped keeping up with the news. “Too negative,” they say. “I’m only reading fiction these days,” others tell me. Information overload is leading to cognitive dysfunction and alternate facts.

Instead of confronting the brutal truth and formulating a strategy, as the university president did, I constantly see examples of tough decisions being put off for others to deal with later — when there’s a full-blown crisis.  In the political realm, they call this “kicking the can down the road.” At the highest levels of leadership, unwillingness to confront brutal facts has become an exercise in denying that the facts are indeed brutal (“skyrocketing budget deficits are not really a problem”), or that they are even facts at all (“climate change is a hoax.”) Only 17 percent of the American public correctly understand that almost all climate scientists think global warming is happening, and happening even faster than anybody imagined just 25 years ago.

Such magical thinking seems to be seeping into the business realm. I asked a group of 25 high-level supply chain executives in a closed-door meeting not long ago, “how many of you are heeding the Treasury Secretary’s advisory to reorient your supply chains out of China”? Only one manager raised his hand. The rest apparently assumed that the Trade War will be settled quickly, and that things will return to the way they were. But suppose they don’t?

Here are 4 strategies to help you see it coming and prepare for the big changes ahead: 

1.Develop a growth mindset. The best defense is a good offense, so figure out what you need to do to your personal and professional value proposition to shore it up before a competitor or a negative trend does it for you – at your expense. Learn something new everyday, and challenge your assumptions. Read everything from the New York Times to InnovationTrends to your local, struggling home town newspaper.

2. Develop metrics to reflect how well you are adapting to change. As more and more firms set up sophisticated “dashboards” containing gauges and warning signals measuring sales, service levels, etc. I invite you to design your personal dashboard. What do you need to measure in terms of your career development and navigation? How much fuel remains in your tank before you need to refuel and change careers? How well have you been re-skilling yourself in your present profession? What’s your lifelong learning strategy going to be? What stage of life are you in and what’s next in your life journey?

3. Be willing to accept bad news. If you’re a manager, your direct reports have formed an opinion about you on this question. Do you or do you not want the unvarnished truth? If you surround yourself with “yes men” and “yes women” you may not receive information that doesn’t cater to your preconceived notions, your prejudices, your paradigms. But having this information could prevent you from making a really bad decision. Don’t blame the messenger. Instead, thank them and start focusing on what to do with or about the news.

4. Don’t wait for all the data to come in before making a decision. By then it may be too late. Observing weak signals of change — whether the change appears to be positive or negative — when noticed early on and given proper attention, give you a jump on crafting your response.

The decade ahead, the 2020s, will bring forth extremes. In good news and bad. Extremes in weather, in wealth accumulation, inflection points, and in human achievement. It will bring incredible new technologies and medical cures, but also cyber-attacks and drones buzzing about overhead that will make you wish they’d never been invented. And through it all, if you think and act ahead of the curve, you’ll probably do just fine.