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For a generation of business executives, Kodak is the poster child for industry giants that failed to see the digital future coming. But the truth is more revealing.

Kodak developed a digital camera prototype in the 1970s and launched the first commercial digital single-lens reflex camera in 1991. With a strong brand and market power, Kodak should have been a force to be reckoned with. But it walked into a set of traps common to large companies trying to cope with uncertainty: Kodak made small-scale, scattershot initial moves and was unwilling to risk cannibalizing a highly profitable core. And a last-gasp big bet—a failed joint venture with Hewlett-Packard to create photo-developing kiosks—was the wrong one.

As uncertainty sweeps across global markets, amid concerns about China, the rupee’s volatility, commodity price uncertainty and rapid technological changes, many companies are struggling to avoid their own Kodak moments.

While few companies are completely blind to what’s coming, many struggle to effectively adapt their strategies. Why? Traditional approaches to strategy—analysing trends, making forecasts and committing only to the best course of action—are not calibrated for the high degree of instability encountered today. Companies tend to disregard the one thing that’s certain about projections: There’s a good chance they will be wrong.

In uncertainty, companies need to change their strategic planning processes, as well as their strategies. The most effective leaders develop clear and actionable portfolios of strategic actions that balance commitment with flexibility. Instead of relying on a planning exercise defined by conditions at a discrete point in time, they commit to a cycle of executing, monitoring and adapting, to redirect the company towards the best opportunities over time. These leaders prepare their companies for a range of possible futures by:

n Identifying which uncertainties their companies face, separating those that matter from those that don’t;

n Creating probable scenarios for how the future might unfold and discussing the threats—and opportunities—each one presents;

n Devising a specific set of strategic options that balance commitment to one course of action with the flexibility to adjust and thrive amid different future scenarios; and

n Identifying clear signposts that will signal important market changes and trigger actions already foreseen during the scenario-planning process.

The goal is to prod leadership to monitor change on a regular basis and move ahead of competitors as future states take shape.

For one of India’s largest companies, switching to a scenario-based planning process was a game-changer. The company had pegged its strategy to more of the same assumptions across most key external factors. This guided its strategic choices—capacity additions, supply chain decisions, capability investments—and the outcome would have been fine as long as external conditions didn’t change much.

But faced with increasing uncertainty around commodity prices, economic growth and demand, the company re-examined its assumptions and developed scenarios that provided options that could be exercised depending on the emerging scenario—or a combination of scenarios.

Using this new approach, it has developed solid business cases for multiple strategic options, which it would not have anticipated under the old, single-track process. Many of these require heavy capital investment and lengthy planning. By developing clear plans before the scenarios materialize, the company will shorten the decision-making cycle considerably.

Strategies that are robust in uncertainty are no less devoted to a bold, long-term ambition. But they strive to balance commitment to this vision with an explicit set of investments that prepare the company to seize the future as it unfolds.

Knowing when to move is as important as being prepared, so companies also need to identify the critical signposts that signal change early.

Fast adaptation hardly means abandoning the company’s core strengths or mission. On the contrary, those strengths provide the best compass for adapting to changing circumstances. When Macy’s confronted the challenge of online retailing in the early 2000s, it might have done what many of its rivals did and outsourced its digital showroom to an experienced online firm. But Macy’s executives realized that owning the customer experience was a core element of its strategy, whether that experience takes place in a store or in cyberspace. Outsourcing might have been less risky in the short term, but under all futures, Macy’s would have to learn how to bring its merchandising prowess online. Building its own platform allowed the retailer to control the customer experience and learn from it in real time.

There was a time when innovation and disruption were most acute in highly changeable industries such as technology or pharmaceuticals, but those days are gone. Finding a way to sustain profits and reach full potential amid a constantly shifting landscape is increasingly the central challenge in every market or sector. The companies that make the future—not just take it as it comes—will be those that can embrace uncertainty and turn it to their advantage.

Nikhil Prasad Ojha is a partner with Bain and Co. in New Delhi and leads the firm’s India strategy practice. Martin Toner is a partner in New York. Parijat Ghosh is a Bain partner who is a member of the strategy practice and leads the healthcare practice in India.

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