Hello, I'mAlisa Sydow

Entrepreneur & Researcher

Navigation under uncertainty – why we should all follow the saying “if life gives you lemons, make some lemonade”

In these days, we have realized that the assumed unexpected and impossible might actually happen. Every now and then I think about the moment when I took my flight from Milan to Hanover on the 20th of February 2020. I clearly remember my accurate plans of my 4 days back home in Germany. The first thing on my to-do-list was, selecting the wedding dress for a close friend of mine, celebrating the birthday of my father and then traveling after 3 days at home to Berlin to participate in an event for my business Nampelka. Yet, we have the 15th of April and I am still at home with my family in Germany – the initial 4days planned got extended to 55 days. The previous unexpected seems suddenly very real: our metropolitans become ghost cities, the intense care of hospitals become overcrowded, dead bodies are carried out of Bergamo by the military, parents become unmeant teachers for their children, doing grocery shopping becomes our highlight of the day, and virtual meetings become our only social contact.

All these events lead to a certain perception of fear and unease throughout the countries and societies. It is the feeling of uncertainty that scares us, the feeling of being powerless. Our inability to foresee the future drives us crazy because we are used to organize in advance the next months, and years in our private life as well as in business. We find ourselves in a situation in which something that 2 days ago has been perceived as something impossible, it now turns out to be pretty realistic. Imagine just two month ago, who would ever had imagined that Lufthansa is forced to park 700 out of the 763 aircraft on the ground? Or that the ecosystem around Airbnb is falling apart by losing 96% of its bookings worldwide? Although, we know that our environment had become more and more dynamic over the years, the severity we recently face is definitely another level.

Before the crisis of the corona pandemic, we already have started to use the trendy managerial acronym VUCA that stands for volatility, uncertainty, complexity, and ambiguity to show that we know how to manage complex situations. Buzzwords such as ‘agility’ have entered the daily life of many firms and are supposed to lead to flexible structures that generate innovation. For example, tools as SCRUM or design thinking should produce innovations in a short period of time. So, it seems like we already have the appropriate tools and mindset to face uncertain, volatile and complex environments.

Why so many firms struggle then to reinvent their business models according to the new challenges that the global pandemic of coronavirus has brought us?

Well, it seems like those tools are made for times when things are going well, not for a global crisis. For example, design thinking works great when you have a lot of time to try it out, when you have the time and money to have endless customer journeys and endless interviews. Luckily, we can find nice surprises that might help us in understanding how to navigate our businesses through the current uncertainty. There are some firms that are in less trendy and innovative sectors, and yet showing how agile and flexible they can be. “Fair Care!” the German exhibition stand construction from Frankfurt faced a huge crisis as all of a sudden, all the orders for next fairs has been cancelled. Instead of closing down his business, Sven Obert the manager, decided to turn his business model inside out. “My mother told me that an acquaintance made a partition out of plexiglass for his wife, who works in a pharmacy. That gave me the impulse”. Just within one day they were able to change their whole production to the new product for which they have again plenty of orders. Even though it cannot lead “Fair Care!” to a new business model in the long-term perspective, it can guarantee the firm’s survival over the crisis.

What can we learn from this story? Regardless their traditional business, we have seen that the manager was able to exploit a completely new opportunity that flew by coincidentally. He knew that they have all the required resources and means to produce those partitions to protect the pharmacists, and he also knew that there will be a market for it. That is why, he did not hesitate to change his business model. Just like “If life gives you lemons, make lemonade”. This saying represents one principle of the effectuation theory that has been introduced by the American scholar Saras Sarasvathy in 2001 (https://www.effectuation.org, https://www.effectuation.at/). Effectuation contains principles that provide you a guidance how to navigate your business (and even your personal life) under high uncertainty. Despite its strong academic background, it has not been yet implemented in the field. This fact is intriguing to me, because it seems like we could learn a lot from it. Especially, in times where we feel the negative impacts of uncertainty more than ever before.

Maybe we should all follow more the idea of “if life gives you lemons, make lemonade” instead of asking for some tequila?