The Dao of Unintended Consequences

Originally Published by The Capterra Knocking Down Doors Blog

Every single day, your business stands at a fork in the road. Sometimes, the fork is between two wildly different paths, and sometimes, the paths are fairly similar. At each of these junctions, you have a choice to make. With each decision, you’ll be determining a huge number of outcomes, all while removing other possibilities from the future.

Time doesn’t stop if you’re feeling overwhelmed. The chance to make your own choice will sail by. Instead, you need to embrace the unknown and take that first step. Luckily, there are plenty of resources to help you make the decisions you’ll be faced with.

Starting with Daoism.

Daoism, the way of the way

“Dao” just means “path” or “way,” and so Daoism is a philosophy concerned with discovering and following paths. Instead of being prescriptive — do this, don’t do that — much of the philosophy concerns how to put yourself in the best position to choose the right paths.

Spontaneity is the key to making these choices. Instead of going into a decision with a fixed idea of how you’ll act, Daoism suggests that you act in the way that seems to accord with nature at the time you make the choice. We’ve gotten a little theoretical already, so let’s bring it back to earth.

You’re faced with a tough decision on a tight timeline. Will you put in an offer for a competing business that’s gone up for sale? You have 24 hours to decide. To act with a sense spontaneity, from the Daoist perspective, you shouldn’t let your judgment be clouded by external factors.

Part of this clouding comes from facing an unknown outcome. If you don’t bid will another competitor? Will your employees be upset? Is the business worth saving? These unknowns can cause you to freeze up and make the wrong decision or, worse, no decision at all. Daoism asks you to put those concerns aside and to choose based on how things appear in the moment.

Choosing is never easy

Saying that you can make a quick and complex decision based on intuition is easier said than done. While Daoism may seem to emphasize the spiritual, fuzzy nature of these choices, its philosophy is underpinned by rigorous personal training.

In business, that means being prepared for the decisions you’ll be asked to make. Preparation means knowing what you want your company to look like in five years’ time. Knowing how much capital you have on hand to spend. Being prepared to walk away from a tempting deal if it’s wrong for the business.

It also means coming to terms with the things you don’t have control over or that you can’t foresee.

Unintended consequences

When you agreed to make a bid, you never would have imagined that four years down the road it would mean moving your entire business to New York. You didn’t know that your competitor’s biggest client was based out of New York City, and that as they grew, so would your business.

Each decision we make has the chance to turn into something unforeseen. A less prepared business might take the unknown as a sign to turn and run, but a business that’s taken the time to know itself and to understand its path can make decisions without the fear of unintended consequences.

In reality, unintended consequences are just another way of talking about fears. We don’t know what’s coming and so we choose not to choose — we’re scared. The problem is that we see other people making these sorts of choices and we have a hard time distinguishing bravery from stupidity.

Twitter — out of dumb luck or foresight — has held tightly on to its 140-character limit. That’s given it popularity it never could have foreseen, but it’s also limited its revenue generation. From the outside, we can’t say if a genius made the choice or if momentum just kept them from ever changing the limit.

Embracing the unknown

The only way to position yourself to make the right choices without fear of unintended consequences is to embrace the unknown. Paradoxically, that doesn’t mean that you should do less planning — it means you should do more.

Embracing the unknown is genuinely terrifying, but not if you’re in the strongest position possible. If you know what path your company is on, what resources it has, what it’s done well in the past, and what it wants to be in the future, then there’s very little unknown.

Maybe you’ll move to New York or maybe you’ll stay put, but those are small unknowns in the grand scheme of things. By making the most informed decisions possible, you’ll set yourself up to be the genius behind the wheel, not the lottery winner who doesn’t know what to do with his winnings.

Make a plan

This is going to sound simplistic, but the first step to success is to have a plan for your business. In 2010, Palo Alto software found that over 50% of the almost 3,000 businesses they surveyed didn’t have a business plan. Those businesses were less likely to secure loans, get investors involved, or grow their business.

Well Fargo’s 2015 survey was even less optimistic, with just 33% of businesses saying that they had a formal business plan in place.

If you’re in the majority, check out the SBA’s guide to writing a business plan for basics. More advanced students can jump into Bringing Science to the Art of Strategyin the Harvard Business Review. You’re not going to make a flawless plan — and it would be foolish to try — but you can make a good one.

Reflect on what you’ve done

The other key to embracing the unknown is to understand it once it becomes known. Unfortunately, you only know what you’ve done after you’ve done it. You can get a lot of insight into why things happened the way they did from a solid set of reporting tools. Check out Andrew Blackman’s recent article on business intelligence over on Tuts+ for a great starter guide to understanding your business.

If you know what kinds of things have come up in the past, you can account for them more accurately in the future.

Inactive action

The last point I’ll cover is a Daoist concept called wu-wei, which translates to non-action. In addition to spontaneous action, Daoism promotes acting in accordance with your surroundings. If you are truly in-tune with the world around you, you won’t even have to act to act.

Back to our example, if you know your business plan, known where you want to be, and are moving your business down the right path, the opportunities that you would normally have to agonize over will present answers to you.

You competitor, in this example, can see why his business is a good fit for yours. Instead of offering it up to the highest bidder, he’ll come to you to solicit an offer. You won’t have done anything beyond running your business, and yet you’ll generate action.

Final thoughts

The philosophies of Daoism can be helpful in all sorts of business settings, not just the ones I’ve gone over here. If you’re interested in learning more, check out this short article on Columbia University’s website or, better yet, talk to someone who cares about it.

In all of this, the key is flexibility. The more freedom you give yourself to act, the more chances you’ll have to take advantage of opportunities. If you have a good plan in place, good people acting on it, and a good head on your shoulders, you’ll do fine.

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