As consumers batten down the hatches and the global economy slows, senior executives confront a more profoundly uncertain business environment than most of them have ever faced. Uncertainty surrounds not only the downturn’s depth and duration—though these are decidedly big unknowns—but also the very future of a global economic order until recently characterized by free-flowing capital and trade and ever-deepening economic ties.
The task of business leaders must be to overcome the paralysis that dooms any organization and to begin shaping the future. One starting point is to take stock of what they do know about their industries and the surrounding economic environment; such an understanding will probably suggest needed changes in strategy. Even then, enormous uncertainty will remain, particularly about how governments will behave and the global real economy and financial system will interact. All these factors, taken together, will determine whether we face just a few declining quarters, a severe global recession, or something in between.
Uncertainty of this magnitude will leave some leaders lost in the fog. To avoid impulsive, uncoordinated, and ultimately ineffective responses, companies must evaluate an unusually broad set of macroeconomic outcomes and strategic responses and then act to make themselves more flexible, aware, and resilient.
Building these organizational muscles will allow companies not only to survive but also to seize the extraordinary opportunities that arise during periods of vast uncertainty.