Last week, having spent a couple of days working with a new colleague, I discovered quite by chance that she is the sister of a friend of mine from University, whom I haven’t seen for 15 years.  Low-to-medium remarkable, you might think – until this week I bumped into him in Central London.  (And, for the aficionados, a small coda: when I got home, I made a mental note to email a friend who collects coincidences; at which point the phone rang and…).

Coincidences have an addictive frisson, because they tease us with the possibility that maybe, just maybe, such things are preordained (and it can be spooky: only last week I was on a plane flying back to the UK, and happened to get into conversation with the man next to me. Turned out he was flying to Heathrow as well!  What are the chances of that happening?). 

Whether from a sense of wonder at the mysteries of the spiritual universe, or the relief which comes from knowing you can blame a higher order when things go wrong, Fate is our psychological bit on the side.  Maybe it was the day you happened to open the paper and spot the advert for the job which made your career, or maybe the chance conversation with a client which opened the door for a multi-million contract, but chances are at some point you’ve felt tempted to see such events as part of some grand plan, rather than the product of serendipity.

It’s a sobering thought that arriving in a room a few seconds later than you did might change the direction of your entire life.  I prefer not to think about what might have happened had I left school at 16 to work in a museum, as I very nearly did.  The fact that ultimately it seemed too much like hard work compared to dossing about in the sixth form becomes, in retrospect, concrete evidence of the hand of God guiding me towards my preordained current role.

Given the amount of printed material concluding that the modern world of commerce is complex, unpredictable and turbulent, it’s interesting how everyone behaves as if any one of us could effortlessly shape its rough-hewn ends.  All you need do is follow the business equivalent of a horoscope, usually in the form of a 2x2 matrix.  This deterministic view is, I suppose, a source of comfort, given that the alternative is to believe that business success is the result of random coincidences and their knock-on effects.

I was once a guest on a radio programme, the topic of which was “Is there going to be a recession?”  Since the other guests were economists with ‘expert’ written across their chests, I decided not to get involved and instead tried to turn the discussion into a debate about the fatuous nature of economic forecasts.  Needless to say, they got me behind the bike sheds afterwards, but I still maintain that the only option when forecasting recessions is to predict the worst.  Given that nobody has a clue whether it’s going to happen, you can be confident that 1) if it doesn’t happen, everyone will be so grateful they’ll forget about your rubbish forecast, or 2) if it does, you can look smug and double your fee rate.

One thing I am sure of: it’s a waste of time predicting the decline of forecasting, as people are still turning current facts into future certainty on a daily basis.  Just last week, four senior Marks & Spencer managers lost their jobs for delivering half year profits of nearly £300 million.  Doesn’t sound much of a crime, except that the previous half years’ were higher.  And determinism says that therefore the next will be lower.  (I wish I’d known about this model two years ago when my annual revenues were down on the previous year.  Naively, at the time I decided not to sack myself.  But what do you know: next year my revenues went up.  Must be coincidence.)

To return to one of my favourite topics, what does all this mean for how one uses consultants?  Well, for a start, I would suggest seeing them as agents of Flexibility rather than Certainty.  I do my best to politely refuse when clients ask me to share case studies of how other companies have been successful using the kind of approaches I work with.  Such case studies might make me look good, but they feed the belief that if you do what they did, success will be assured.  Unfortunately, for as long as you can only do what they did at a different time, in a different place, with different people, you cannot achieve what they did.  What you can do is accept that those who are best placed to capitalise on the randomness of existence will ultimately thrive.  And I forecast that with absolute certainty…..


Copyright © Phil Lowe, 2004.  All rights reserved