As we wrap up a second pandemic year and begin a third one, it's worth a moment or two to reflect on the world in which we find ourselves. My parents believed that the 1950s was a wonderful time: we had just won World War 2, the US economy was on the rise, and rock-n-roll was popping up all over. My generation found the 1980s to be a great time to be a teenager: inflation had calmed down, the Cold War generated plenty of political intrigue, and glorious 80s pop filled the airwaves.
In both eras, we all watched the same television shows, listened to the same radio stations, and went to the same movies. In fact, that predictability went a long way toward creating a sense of stability and cohesion. We had a shared set of experiences, enough to overcome much of the divisiveness we see today: our neighbors might have been weird, but they weren’t our blood enemies.
A Whirlwind of Unpredictability
Needless to say, that sense of cultural orthodoxy and stability has vanished. Here’s a brief survey of factors that contribute to the chaos.
Omicron: Two years into a pandemic, we find ourselves with a new variant that spreads further, faster, and just in time to run rampant through holiday gatherings. Of course, the virus doesn’t know the first thing about human holidays, but it couldn’t have picked a better (or worse?) time to mutate. Many experts suggested that the Delta variant would be the end of the pandemic. But pandemics are unpredictable, as are mutations. As we travel across borders by air, ship, and automobiles, we make it more likely to spread disease.
Inflation: For a very many years the Federal Reserve has tried to get inflation to 2%, without coming close. There has been cyclical inflation in housing, energy, and food—all things that harm those most vulnerable to inflation—but for the most part, there was no real problem. Until there was. Now, we have the highest inflation since 1982. Nassim Nicholas Taleb, author of The Black Swan, has explained that the economy is like a cat, an organic object, rather than a washing machine, an object you can tinker with. Anyone who’s tried to corral a housecat, even for the cat’s own good, should know better than to try and control the economy. It is difficult to change the trajectory of things like inflation, or even to influence it significantly.
Supply Chain Breakdowns: The United States is built on logistics and distribution, in part because our military competency is logistics. But as globalization has found us trading with partners around the world, a problem in one country can cause a cascading problem downstream. Thus, as we have integrated our supply chains around the world, we have also made them more fragile.
Wage Pressure: As the pandemic took root, people everywhere took account of their lives, many deciding that that they are no longer willing to do the work they were doing before the pandemic. The Great Resignation, as it is now known, was a wrecking ball to labor markets. Having spent a lifetime in staffing, I have always worried about how transactional companies treat people, believing that labor is abundant and cheap. There is data that suggests that 40% or more of employees will quit their jobs in 2022. No one predicted that pay rates would climb far past the $15 living wage talked about in the last election cycle, contributing to the inflation.
Buffalo Starbucks: The Starbucks in my neighborhood is not keeping its ordinary hours because they can't hire people at the $10 starting rate, a number going to $15.00 soon. Meanwhile, however, a Buffalo Starbucks voted to unionize. Starbucks has always offered incredible benefits, including health care, something that Howard Schultz made sure of after his father went without health care. Other Starbucks stores may follow suit.
Ukraine: Russia is once again threatening the Ukraine, having never honored their independence or that of Belarus. NATO has little interest in a conflict with a nuclear Russia. The Biden Administration has threatened economic sanctions should Russia attack Ukraine, including preventing them from using the international payment system called SWIFT.
Democracy vs. Autocracy: There is a contest between the United States and China over which system creates growth, innovation, and a better way of life. For our part here, a working democracy requires us to recognize that we have more in common than any difference.
Housing: Yesterday, I received a text message asking me to sell my home. This is the fourth or fifth time a stranger has offered to buy my home. One person left an offer in my mailbox. Lumber prices and labor have made it difficult to build new houses, although the builders believe 2022 will be a very big year. But as interest rates rise, there may be a headwind, as rates have remained historically low.
Selling in Unpredictable Times
These things will work their way out over time. Some are getting better, like the new treatments for COVID and the supply chains getting the attention and help they need. But as things get better, the nature of our increasingly complex environment will provide us with challenges we cannot predict from here.
We will have to work harder to help our clients navigate their world, instead of letting them get paralyzed by the unpredictability. It's our duty to pay attention to what's going on in our client's world, learn how best to process their slice of unpredictability, and help them make the best decisions for their businesses.
Those who still practice the legacy approach to sales will find the future a much more difficult place to sell. Telling the company’s story and finding a problem simply won’t win deals anymore, particularly for clients who need expert help predicting the unpredictable.