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Paolo Cuomo – Navigating Uncharted Waters: Doing Business in an Uncertain World

The following article is a summary of the talk Paolo Cuomo gave at the Camelot Networks Big Round Table event on the 5th of May. To read more from Paolo, follow the link at the bottom of this page.


In early May I got the chance to speak with The Camelot Network on the topic of insurance in an uncertain world. Rather too cutely that uncertain world meant I gave my short talk outside in a windstorm, but it seemed to gain traction with the audience anyhow. Thanks to those who raised associated points in the later discussion and with follow-ups afterwards.

Thank you also to David Clamp for the chance to speak to your colleagues alongside Maarten Ectors and Parul Kaul Green.

Below are the key points, relevant for just about anyone in any company. (On the broader theme of digital transformation also see these recent discussions with Cytora and Insly)

Four interrelated points to make

  1. We’re living in a VUCA world
  2. Everybody needs to deal with ambiguity
  3. Understand your OODA loop and improve it
  4. Build an uncertainty advantage

We’re living in a VUCA world

VUCA is one of those phrases that some firms embrace and others appear never to have heard of.

It stands for:

The idea derives from the leadership theories of Warren Bennis and Burt Nanus but at a simple level it can just be a reminder that as you build a company, a team, a mindset, etc you must not expect things to be the same from one day to the next.

Whether or not you use the term VUCA in your organisation, you need some form of shorthand for reminding people that their short, medium and long-term plans need to be designed taking unknown change into account.

Plenty of further reading on this in both articles (such as this HBR one) or books, including VUCA Tool for a VUCA world by Ann Deaton or The VUCA Learner by Suhayl Abidi (affiliate links).

Everybody needs to deal with ambiguity

I explained how for every role I interview — whether a PA, a CIO, an underwriting assistant, or a data analyst — towards the end of the interview I will ask the following:

If I say ‘Ambiguous’ what is your reaction?

It is not an easy question to understand, and of course, there is no right answer. There are however plenty of wrong answers.

The man who says he avoids it, the woman who says she looks to eradicate it, the candidate who simply looks nervous as they struggle to answer it; these are unlikely to be the people you want. Ambiguity is all around us — endemic, to use the word of the moment — so you want employees, colleagues, team-mates, bosses, who can deal with it in an appropriate manner.

Understand your OODA loop and improve it

OODA is another buzzword, but this time from the military domain rather than management consulting or academia.

Developed by US Airforce Cornel John Boyd the letters stand for

The principle is that the person/company/country whose OODA loop is tighter gets the advantage over the other. In the context of air-to-air combat, the pilot with the tighter OODA loop can get behind their opponent’s plane and win the dogfight.

The takt time of your OODA loop is a function of each of the four parts. If your company is greater at Observing, Orientating, and Deciding but is then slow to Act then the overall loop is delayed. Equally, if your OOA is good but your executive team only Decide in meetings once a month then you’re at a disadvantage compared to those companies that gather their exco together weekly for any time-critical decision-making.

Build an uncertainty advantage

My final point wrapped all the above up together. I explained that given the uncertainty of the world we’re living in your aim needs to be ensuring you have an “uncertainty advantage” over the competition.

By building a business where your tech, your operational processes, your staff’s mindset, and your decision-making can all change direction more easily than the others then you don’t need to live in fear of change.

Rather, you look forward to changing occurring as you know you have an advantage compared to your competitors when it comes to reacting to it.

Or to quote an old colleague: Why does a car have brakes? So it can go fast…

It is impossible to do justice to these topics in just a few paragraphs. Let me know if you want to discuss further.

Thanks again to Camelot for the opportunity to discuss this at your Big Round Table.