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When Strategy Goes Off Course, Look for Serendipity

Managing in an unimaginable world

Business leaders can leverage serendipity to help their companies deal with far-reaching market shocks. Every so often businesses face shocks that have unknown and unpredictable implications for the future performance of their existing strategy and business model.

In an increasingly global world, the repercussions of a significant shock – such as the COVID-19 pandemic – simply cannot be imagined. When the virus first started circulating, nobody could begin to fathom all the ways in which it would impact their businesses and personal lives.

In such instances, managers face a set of known unknowns (risks they are aware of) and unknown unknowns – a phrase popularised by former U.S. Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld to describe the things "we don't know we don't." When known unknowns arise, managers have a good idea what their alternative strategy options look like but don't know which one will afford them future competitive advantage. But when managers face unknown unknowns, future strategic options are unclear and unknowable.

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