“This isn’t life in the fast line, this is life in oncoming traffic,” wrote fantasy author Terry Pratchett in 2014. A decade later, it might be time to dust off that statement as we ponder what lies in store in a year in which 45% of the worlds’ population, representing about 60% of global GDP, will have the opportunity to vote in democratic elections. Not everyone will do so. And that is part of the problem.
This series of elections, especially in major economies, happen against a backdrop of slowing global growth, stubborn inflation and persistent, historically high interest rates. That, coupled with rising global rivalries, underpinned by mounting international competition especially between China and the US, as well as two major wars, in Ukraine and in the Middle East, both of which carry the risk of contagion, means that it’s going to become harder for leaders to make pragmatic long-term decisions.
But it’s critical that they do.
Leaders are required every day to make decisions based on imperfect information. It seems ironic that the world has never been more data rich, yet the information upon which leaders are making critical decisions is as flawed as it ever was.
“Making predictions is difficult,” quipped mid-century baseball player and legendary wit Yogi Berra, especially about the future.”
This is the time of year in which countless sages and their wannabe acolytes will make annual predictions, most of which will be wrong. Forecasts are flawed because they are based on opinions, intuition, guesses, as well as on facts, figures, and other relevant data which we know about. The biggest change comes from those events which are inherently unpredictable.
Forecasters in January 1914 could have reasonably expected that Europe was on the brink of serious conflict but could never have predicted the precise catalyst nor have imagined the sequence of events triggered by a complex series of treaties which kicked in following the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand in Sarajevo eight months later. The “war to end all wars” was supposed to usher in a new era of peace and prosperity but the draconian terms of the Treaty of Versailles created an environment in which fascism would thrive within half a generation. Today, forecasters use such examples to highlight the importance of proper risk management in assessing the pitfalls of the future. What they cannot do however is go beyond what is blindingly obvious to anyone who is remotely paying attention to the world around them.
So this is not a forecast nor a roadmap for what lies in store in 2024. If the past four years have taught us one thing, forecasts like the weather are increasingly unreliable. Rather it’s a survival guide to whatever lies ahead.
It is going to feel noisier and more contested than any year which you have experienced so far. The interconnected nature of the world and how we choose to tap into it means that we will often feel overwhelmed by the volume and speed of information that will flood our inboxes and social media feeds.
It will make sensible decision making appear harder, but you will have to make those calls anyway and it’s best demonstrated in the pages of one of my favourite books of all time, the 1980 New York Times Bestseller: Oh! The Places You’ll Go.
It lays out the best strategy I have yet seen on how to navigate the future.
“You will come to a place where the streets are not marked,” wrote Dr Seuss, “Some windows are lighted. But mostly they’re darked. A place you can sprain both your elbow and chin! Do you dare to stay out? Do you dare to stay in? How much can you lose? How much can you win?”
The core lesson though to carry though for the uncertain year ahead: Waiting is a useless action.
“You can get so confused that you’ll start in to race down long wiggled roads at a break-necking pace and grind on for miles across weirdish wild space,” he wrote, “headed, I fear, toward a most useless place. The Waiting Place…”
The primary character gets so confused about what to do next, that he stops to wait with others in a place where inaction is the key activity. Some are waiting for their big break, others for the phone to ring or simply waiting to feel in control.
One of the most valuable things I have learned through studying founders and leaders in one of the most dysfunctional business environments on earth is that action is critical to progress – even taking small incremental steps rather than bold audacious steps you might prefer when confident, towards big goals, is better than doing nothing.
So, amidst the uncertainty and discomfort 2024 will bring – commit to just one thing – taking action in pursuit of your goals.
“Rest is rust” says Stephen Saad, founder and CEO of multinational medicines maker Aspen Pharmacare.