Book Brief: Uncharted
Title: Uncharted: How to Navigate the Future
Author: Margaret Heffernan
Published: 2020 by Avid Reader Press
What It Teaches: Uncharted has shown up on a number of lists of the top books of 2020. Given how 2020 has convinced us that the future is uncharted and unpredictable, there’s a real hunger for an answer to how we can navigate the future. I picked up the book hoping it contained some new approaches and tools that I could use in my work with clients. I wanted quick and easy practical steps and instead the author delivered long and messy stories of real life. She’s a great storyteller and her chapters are full of compelling stories, but no easy answers.
When To Use It: Uncharted isn’t a book you pick up when you have a specific need. You don’t grab it when you need a quick refresher on a specific type of situation or a specific approach to solving problems. Instead, it’s a sobering read that helps you see the needs you weren’t even aware of and to think differently about your entire approach to running your organization.
I’ll be honest, I was really disappointed when I started reading Uncharted: How to Navigate the Future by Margaret Heffernan, but that has more to do with my expectations than with the book. One of the topics I enjoy wrestling with is strategy in the midst of uncertainty, so I was hoping that she’d share some new approaches to do just that. I have a great appreciation for tools and I was hoping she’d give me some more tools for my strategy workbench. But instead, she starts the book by critiquing the whole idea that we can apply simple formulas to deal with the complexity of reality. She’s especially hard on market forecasters, and doesn’t look too kindly on data driven models in general.
Uncharted didn’t have any easy or simple answers, but the author did draw some hard and not simple conclusions that I want to share.
One of her key warnings was that we (business leaders) confuse the concepts of “complicated” and “complex”. In previous decades we’ve dealt with increasing complexity by using technology to automate complicated things with a focus on efficiency. But now we are dealing with systems that are truly complex. Because so many different aspects of our global economy are interconnected, even though we think we know how they work and think we have them under control, many business systems have become inherently unpredictable, so we don’t need automation (focused on efficiency), rather we need robust systems (which are not going to be efficient).
The rest of the book deals with how we can manage through the unpredictability of this complex world we live in. My key takeaways from her on how to do this include:
- Develop scenarios — which I’ve written and talked about a lot,
- Run experiments to test out the future,
- Be agile, in alignment with your purpose, rather than rigidly following plans — which requires more margin than our efficiency minded businesses typically have,
- Have a cathedral building mindset — meaning take a multigenerational view where the end benefit isn’t clear but you proceed with faith if you believe in the mission, and
- Think like an artist, meaning observing everything, letting it stew, boldly creating, and not being afraid to fail.
I’ve drawn these takeaways out of the lengthy compelling stories that the author shares. I really can’t do these stories justice in a brief review, so if this is a topic you’re willing to truly wrestle with, I recommend carving out the time to read the stories and spend time contemplating what they mean for the future of your organization.
Bottom line, the core concept of Uncharted is that the world (and especially the business world) has become too complex to deal with using simple models, one-dimensional tools, or short term perspectives. Navigating the future requires agility, courage, and commitment to principles. The rare leader with those attributes is likely to do well in this uncharted future.
If you do want to buy this book, would you consider buying it through my affiliate link at Amazon? Uncharted (SDG Strategy will earn a small affiliate commission.)