As I write this in Dubai, it seems that Hosni Mubarak’s days as President of Egypt are numbered. It reminds us of the transitory nature of power – although in Mubarak’s case the transit took some thirty years – and he hasn’t gone yet. But regimes that one day can seem to be anchor points on the political landscape, around which governments shape foreign policy and businesses structure their approach to key markets, can the next day be in a state of acute flux.
We seem surprised by sudden change. World leaders caught off guard respond with fancy political footwork and carefully coded statements as they rapidly recalibrate alliances. Markets get the jitters.
But should we be so surprised?
Potential succession problems in both Tunisia and Egypt have been on our radar for a while. But predicting precisely which spark will ignite the combustible combination of social, political and economic factors is much harder. Politicians and media commentators are often tempted to craft a retrospective narrative that neatly plots the build up of events that triggered the drama being played out on the streets of Cairo. Of course, it is tempting to reconstruct the course of recent Egyptian history to lead inevitably to the dénouement in Tahrir Square. But it is wrong.
We are programmed from school to think like this. We look into our past and understandably we want to know why things turned out the way they did – what forces were at work that shaped our world. We like to see clear threads of logical predictability. The reality, I suspect, is that chance and luck – or the lack of it – has played a much bigger part in the affairs of men than we like to admit.
The collapse of the Berlin Wall, Nelson Mandela’s election as president of South Africa, the rise of communist China as a capitalist superpower: we now take these things for granted as if they have always been established pillars of the international scene. At the time, in fact, we stood on the sidelines with open-mouthed awe as the world seemed to start spinning on a different axis. But soon after, through a process of collective rationalisation the extraordinary has become the ordinary. And we are surprised all over again when something unusual occurs.
Perhaps the trick is not so much to try and know what will happen in the long-run, but rather what could happen. When looking at some of the key countries where we all operate, rather than search for single predictions, it might be better to look at a range of possible scenarios. That way there is less chance of being caught off guard and you are better able to work through the kind of challenges currently underway in North Africa. And even seek out the opportunity inherent in this and any period of dynamic change.
This afternoon we are helping over forty international companies evacuate some of their staff from Egypt as well as implement business continuity plans for when the situation normalises. If I had more time and a much bigger brain, I would like to work out the correlation between those companies which are routinely able to cope with this kind of rapid political change and their financial performance. I am sure it is positive. (It certainly seems to work for the global trade in illegal narcotics.)
My guess is that having the adaptive agility to absorb socio-political shocks is a pretty good lead indicator of overall commercial performance. Watch this space for the AnnaPurna Consulting Resilience Index.