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Margaret Heffernan Headshot

Nobody Knows Anything

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Recession? What recession? Whether you're watching CNBC or just browsing through newsstands, that's what seems to be on everyone's mind. Are we in a disaster, heading for a disaster - or really pretty okay? Pundits on TV screen squack endlessly: we are going down the tubes, we are already at the bottom, or well, ya'know, it's not really so bad. Jack Welch says one thing, Warren Buffet says another. Our favourite witch doctors peddle hope and hysteria. Who should you believe?

Believe no one. Why? Because nobody knows. This parlor game of guessing the future, for all that it's laden with data and charts, is still just hocus pocus. The future (of markets and everything else) is not written and you can't steal a peak at the end of the book to see how it ends. The complexity of world markets is so immense that no one can model it, never mind predict it.

Looking back at the period 2001 to 2004 -- when we really were in a recession -- pundits stated repeatedly that the economy had bottomed out. And every time, they were wrong. When the recovery really started, no one noticed.

The smugness that comes from hindsight isn't germane here. What's critical and costly is how much time and effort everyone wastes trying to glean the unknowable. Prediction and speculation have no place in business. What does have a place -- what everyone should be doing -- is thinking about where we are today and identifying smart, sustainable strategies for dealing with it. Junk the fiction and concentrate on the facts.

The time taken to figure out whether we are in recession is time that could be better spent asking questions that can be answered: are our products as good as they could be? Are our relationships with customers as passionate as we need them to be? Do we know everything about our customers and their daily needs? Are we hiring the best people and keeping them? If, as Percy Barnevik once stated, most companies use only about five percent of their employees' intellectual capacity, are you doing anything to nudge that figure up?

Instead of trying to read the tea leaves, practice scenario planning; it's a great way to generate smart moves. Don't ask if we are in recession; rather, ask: assuming we are, where are the pressure points and what are we doing about them? Even if it turns out that there is no recession, you'll still be doing smart things in your company.

The sado-masochistic sport that is now TV business coverage is, for any serious executive, just displacement activity: fretting instead of fixing. Get off the coach and get back to work.