What do the COVID-19 pandemic, the war in Ukraine, and the recent rise in inflation have in common? They are all discontinuities. We’re living in turbulent times where discontinuities have become a more regular part of business and our lives. So, let’s talk about discontinuities today – what they are, why they matter, and how to best prepare for them.
What are discontinuities?
A discontinuity is a distinct break in physical continuity or sequence in time or a sharp difference of characteristics between parts of something. In the world of mathematics, the term describes a point at which a mathematical function is discontinuous or undefined. When translating these aspects into the realm of political, economic, social, and technological changes, we can say that a discontinuity describes a critical event that causes a lack of regularity or sequence of a well-established status quo.
Why do discontinuities matter big time?
A discontinuity constitutes a radical departure from an often long-established, well-understood, and cozy status quo. It forces us to radically and often swiftly change our habitual ways of doing things and embrace the unknown and unfamiliar. Just think of the outbreak of the COVID-19 pandemic, which meant many businesses, managers, and employees suddenly had to work from home (WFH) and quickly get used to new online collaboration technologies.
Discontinuities are game-changers in many ways. While having a scary side, they often appeal to essential qualities of being human, especially the ability to cope with change and learn and do new things to make us rise to the occasion. Suddenly, we have to do something that so far was deemed unacceptable (such as WFH) or sheer impossible (like shifting face-to-face education online virtually overnight). As such, discontinuities can positively accelerate societal and technological changes and force us to confront —and often slay— some sacred cows once deemed immune to criticism.
Why do discontinuities often occur in bulk?
Interestingly, discontinuities tend not to occur in isolation but more typically “in bulk”: One discontinuity triggers events leading to more discontinuities in other areas, thus having several discontinuous events unfolding in a chain reaction over time.
For example, the prolonged pandemic (discontinuity 1) and the Russian attack on Ukraine (discontinuity 2) have led to disruptions in the global supply chains affecting commodity prices, which triggered a global rise in inflation rates (discontinuity 3), which now compels central banks in many countries to raise interest rates that were close to zero or even negative territory for years (discontinuity 4). Of course, rising interest rates might trigger new discontinuities, such as debt crises in countries with excessive government, corporate, and private debt, and possibly even the drastic redesign (or even end of) the Euro.
How to best deal with the phenomenon of discontinuities?
1. Look ahead to identify possible discontinuities
When we work with companies on strategic innovation projects, we ask them to create a Trend and Discontinuities Map. Thereby, we ask the senior managers to map out likely political, economic, social, and technological trends that might affect their business in the coming 5-10 years and imagine possible discontinuities that may affect the challenge that the company aims to resolve. We might ask future-related questions such as:
What trends and possible discontinuities in your category or industry do you foresee within a specific time frame? What other trends or discontinuities have you overlooked so far? How might the predicted discontinuities affect your business? What trendy waves is your business riding on into the future? What trend waves and discontinuities go against your current business strategy and set-up and threaten to wipe out your business if a wave (or a discontinuous shock triggering it) grows into a tsunami?
2. Hedge against discontinuities ahead of time
At the end of the Xploration stage, we help your team frame your Final Challenge, which is the essential stage output your team has to produce. Your final challenge is a well-framed “How to”-question that encapsulates all your learnings gained during Xploration. In particular, it draws upon those true aha!-insights that you got while exploring your case.
In our example, one core insight that your team got is that you need to narrow the age range of the kids you target. Moreover, thanks to the Challenge Restatement and Challenge Mapping exercises, you noticed that you want to merge your initial challenge with the one focusing on promotional concepts. Hence, you unite these two challenges by moving one level of abstraction up and formulate your final challenge: “How to create innovative ice cream concepts for 6-12-year-old kids?”
3. Plan ahead on how to respond to a likely discontinuity
Scenario planning is a tool aiming to give you more control over an uncertain world by imagining possible alternate futures and then devising one or more scenarios related to how the future might unfold. In the context of our discussion, the scenario is a potential discontinuity that might occur in the future and could disrupt your business (e.g., a military conflict in the South China Sea if you’re dependent on global supply chains or a meltdown of cryptocurrency markets if you’re a technology company). Then, describe what it would mean for your business if the discontinuous event became true. Finally, devise strategic action moves on how your organization could respond effectively.
4. Respond in agile, creative ways to sudden discontinuities
While a few corporations invest time in strategic foresight projects and prepare well ahead of time for possible discontinuities, at least to some extent, the reality is that most businesses get surprised by a discontinuous event. Their leaders need to respond to a sudden discontinuity on the spot and make bold decisions fast in the face of uncertainty, knowing that they might have to change course again later if things turn out differently. After all, nobody can know for sure how a discontinuous event will unfold and turn out over time.
Business leaders tend to fare better in uncertain times if they have developed an agile, creative mindset. High creative confidence and competence coupled with speedy action enable creative leaders to make their businesses move ahead when the advent of a discontinuous event paralyzes most other business leaders.
Conclusion: Master discontinuities with strategic foresight and creativity
The current-day business environment that SUCCS (i.e., is characterized by speed, uncertainty, complexity, change, and surprise) will bring us discontinuous events in more frequent and regular intervals. So, what is the best way to prepare for discontinuities as a business leader? I believe the answer to this question is threefold:
- As a business leader., anticipate discontinuities and think them through as part of your strategic homework.
- Appreciate that even when you’ve prepared well, you might still be caught off guard by some discontinuities in your blind spot or that unfold differently than anticipated.
- Develop and cultivate the mindset of an agile, creative leader who can quickly, creatively, and flexibly respond to an unfolding discontinuity and turn a crisis into an opportunity.
“For tomorrow belongs to the people who prepare for it today.” —African proverb
- Would you like to have us take you through the strategic Xploration Tools (including Trends & Discontinuities Map) that are part of our X-IDEA innovation toolbox in a targeted X-IDEA Strategy Xploration & Innovation Project?
- Would you like to learn more how we develop agile, creative leaders with our creative leadership development method Genius Journey and our related training programs?
- Contact us to tell us more about your business, innovation and training agenda so that we can create an action program that helps you achieve your goals.
© Dr. Detlef Reis 2022. This article is earmarked to be co-published in the Bangkok Post in the coming weeks.