Strategy and FOMO

There’s this really fun neologism that the cool kids use: FOMO, or fear of missing out. It’s a useful snapshot of feelings we experience when our friends are doing something awesome and we are somehow left behind, literally or figuratively. I found that it can serve as a useful handle in strategy work as well.

It seems that organizations collectively experience FOMO. There is a lot of amazing, disruptive innovation happening out there in the world. In the information-dense environment, new and possibly groundbreaking stuff shows up in our various feeds every day – and sometimes more than once a day. Is this the next big thing? Or just hype? How do I know? Strategists fret every day, taking a mental diff between their organization’s course and the potentially significant new thing that just dropped in the Twitterverse. At the age we live in, the fog of uncertainty creeps up the runway of business.

For teams with a narrow cone of embodied strategy, spotting that new significant thing early feels ever more important. Given the limits of motion, a lot of time and effort needs to go into shifting trajectories if that suddenly becomes necessary. The lead times on change are long. So… Was that it? Did we miss the turn? Are we too late? FOMO intensifies.

It is my experience that, just like with us humans, organizations are better off creating space between their feelings and the actions that follow. 

In itself, feeling fearful about missed opportunities is not a bad thing. It implies that we have enough awareness of the different possibilities and – perhaps implicit – practice of playing out various scenarios. This is all good stuff, and any strategically-savvy organization will (and must) have a bunch of people worrying about the future.

However, where things typically get sideways is when we, spurred by our fears, are compelled to act. FOMO tends to trigger a spectrum of reactive patterns. For example, after seeing a new potentially big thing emerge, we might decide to immediately start building an alternative that rivals it. The reactive patterns are rarely rooted in rigorous strategic thinking. Instead, the urgency of the moment causes the organization to fall back onto its embodied strategy. The outcomes can still be favorable, but they will have more to do with luck and brawn, rather than clarity of thought.

However, if we choose to take a collective breath and pause between the next onset of FOMO and our habitual reaction, we can create a space where new, yet unseen opportunities can emerge. In this space, we need to ask – sometimes fighting down the urge to “just jump” – ourselves fairly basic questions, like “what are our capabilities and strengths that might intersect with this new emerging thing?” and “what are the surrounding areas into which the momentum may expand?” and “what are the second order effects of this momentum? What happens when the hype cycle concludes?” 

These questions may require some extra effort to answer honestly. But in my experience, the answers they bring reveal insights that could help our team plot a path that is not an instinctive response. And hey, it might still go up in flames. But at least we won’t be backing into it without looking.

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