“We are in an age of chaos, an era that intensely, almost violently, rejects structure. It isn’t simple instability, it’s a reality that seems to actively resist efforts to understand what the hell is going on…The methods we have developed over the years to recognise and respond to commonplace disruptions seem increasingly, painfully inadequate when the world appears to be falling apart.”
Jamais Cascio, Distinguished Fellow, Institute for the Future and one of the developers of the BANI framework1
Thriving through adversity and uncertainty
From brittleness to resilience and slack
From anxiety to empathy and mindfulness
From nonlinearity to context and flexibility
From incomprehensibility to transparency and intuition
Turbulence is here to stay
1. The constant onslaught of adverse events has exposed the fragility of some of our assumptions about the world we live in.
2. We need a new language to describe the level of disruption and upheaval we are facing.
3. CEOs at small and medium businesses (SMBs) need to become comfortable with being uncomfortable, embrace uncertainty and accept that they will inevitably need to make decisions based on imperfect information.
4. The framework to deal with a Brittle, Anxious, Nonlinear, Incomprehensible (BANI) environment:
a. Move from brittleness to resilience and slack - ensuring capital position and liquidity; operational capacity and resilient IT systems to weather unexpected disasters.
b. Move from anxiety to empathy and mindfulness - focus on the elements of business within the business’s control, create an environment of psychological safety that is inclusive and allows for innovation.
c. Move from nonlinearity to context and flexibility - adjust to constant shifts in customer demand, the competitive landscape, technological changes, and the regulatory terrain with an agile business model.
d. Move from incomprehensibility to transparency and intuition - be honest with yourself and your team and focus on what matters most to the business.
5. Embrace the reality that turbulence is here to stay.
6. Find a North Star to guide you whilst understanding the company’s purpose and values, and your customers’ emerging needs in a world of constant change.
Investors and business leaders crave certainty. Certainty—or the semblance of it—is what gives CEOs the confidence to add hundreds of people to their payroll, invest in a multimillion-rand factory or diversify into a new product line. Yet if we ever had any illusions about living in a certain and predictable world, the past two and half years have taken a sledgehammer to them.
Not only have we lived through the black swan event of the COVID-19 pandemic, we have also seen major shocks like the unrest in South Africa in July 2021 as well as Russia’s invasion of Ukraine in 2022. These events have exposed the fragility of some of our assumptions about the world we live in, as well as the inadequacy of the lenses we use to understand reality.
Let’s consider the familiar VUCA acronym: volatility, uncertainty, complexity, and ambiguity. Developed in the late 20th century, many business leaders started to use the framework to guide decision-making in the post-Cold War era. Some of the tools it suggests for catering for uncertainty are scenario planning, simulations and futures thinking.
But as business thinker Jamais Cascio argues, the observation that we live in a complex, volatile and uncertain world has become obvious to the point of banality. Such is the rate of change in all spheres—social, geopolitical, economic, technological, environmental—that we need a new language to describe the level of disruption and upheaval we are facing.
Cascio proposes the BANI framework as a successor to VUCA:
To deal with this reality, CEOs at small and medium businesses (SMBs) need to become comfortable with being uncomfortable, embrace uncertainty and accept that they will inevitably need to make decisions based on imperfect information.
Here is our spin on Cascio’s framework and some of the ways he proposes dealing with BANI.
If something is brittle, it is hard, inflexible and easy to shatter. Often the result of an effort to wring the maximum profit and efficiency out of a system, brittleness means that an ecosystem, country or company could be prone to sudden and catastrophic failure. We have seen hints of this in the global financial crisis and COVID-19 supply chain disruptions.
Given that we live in an interconnected world held together by the slenderest of threads, the remedy Cascio proposes is resilience and slack. Some elements of this might include ensuring a company has the capital position and liquidity to weather unexpected disasters as well as the operational capacity and resilient IT systems to cope with events such as cyber disruptions or collapses in the supply chain.
The BANI framework acknowledges the emotional strain business leaders and their teams are facing in these times. Thinking too deeply about the next pandemic, a jobs apocalypse due to automation or the possibility of climate disaster are sure ways to increase anxiety. This, in turn, leads to a sense of helplessness and despair—which can turn a prediction of failure into a self-fulfilling prophecy.
For Cascio, empathy and mindfulness are the antidotes for anxiety. Business leaders will feel less anxious if they focus on the elements of their business and their environment which are within their control. Their teams will feel less anxious in an environment where everyone feels included, free to innovate, empowered with the right tools and embedded in an environment of psychological safety.
“In a nonlinear world, cause and effect are seemingly disconnected or disproportionate,” writes Cascio. “Perhaps other systems interfere or obscure, or maybe there’s hidden hysteresis, enormous delays between visible cause and visible effect. In a nonlinear world, results of actions taken, or not taken, can end up being wildly out of balance.”
The growing effect of nearly 200 years of industrialisation on the climate is an example. Context and flexibility are ways of managing non-linearity. In our view, this might translate into an agile business model, underpinned by strategic decision-making and operations that can adjust to constant shifts in customer demand, the competitive landscape, technological changes, and the regulatory terrain.
As business leaders, much of what we see unfold in the world seems illogical or even senseless. We can’t explain events or decisions because they happened too long ago or because the cause and effect are not easy to delineate. More data often adds noise rather than signal. It is at this point that Cascio’s advice is to accept that there are sometimes simply no answers that make any sense.
In our interpretation, transparency here would mean being honest with ourselves and our teams when things cannot be explained in a satisfactory manner. Intuition might mean focusing on what matters most to our business and our customers, accepting that we cannot always explain why one decision worked out better than another.
The SMB CEOs that will steer their businesses in the next few years most successfully are those that embrace the reality that turbulence is here to stay. They will build their businesses and empower their teams to adjust rapidly to changing circumstances; they will also recognise that uncertainty often goes hand in hand with opportunities for growth.
Human thinking gets foggy in times of uncertainty. It can be useful to simplify strategic planning by focusing on the questions that really matter. Increasingly, this is about putting customer needs at the centre of strategic and operational planning. Once that is done, an organisation can map out multiple scenarios that can be adjusted to cater for a range of outcomes.
To navigate these tumultuous times, companies also need to find a North Star to guide them. Here, a good question to ask is not what will change, but what will stay the same. What is the company’s purpose and values, what are its customers’ emerging needs and how do these map to the changing world in which it operates? In those answers, a company can get the insights it needs to survive BANI.
In those early days of the pandemic, most SMBs in South Africa needed to make drastic changes to their business models to survive. The bike tour company, Book iBhoni, started offering bike courier services during the first hard national lockdown in 2020. With live entertainment on hold, Computicket sold virtual food vouchers and launched live concerts streamed on YouTube.4
But one of the most impressive pivots was the way that the liquor delivery app, Bottles, rapidly reinvented itself as a grocery delivery service for Pick n Pay. After the prohibition on the sale of alcohol, Bottles repurposed its app in just four days to deliver on-demand Grocery Essentials to customers around the country.5
“It was a case of adapt or die. We knew we needed to pivot our business to survive. Our first priority was our existing employees and contractors. We have also been able to retain all and even create more job opportunities at a time when many small businesses are mulling retrenchments and downsizing,” Vincent Viviers and Enrico Ferigolli said in an interview with SME South Africa in May 2020.6
Behind the scenes, a flexible technology stack helped the company to make the fast changes to its business model. Its existing liquor delivery relationship with Pick n Pay meant that its systems were already integrated from a stock management, invoicing and reconciliation point of view. It could thus start listing and selling grocery items on the Bottles app very quickly.
That’s not to say it was all easy. With volumes trebling within days, the team had to devise a plan to train the store teams remotely and on-the-job. It also needed to move at speed to develop new functionality such as in-app out of stock substitution to cater for frequent stock shortages in the early months of the crisis.
Pick n Pay acquired Bottles later in 2020, and competitors, Spar, Woolworths and Checkers have all since launched on-demand grocery delivery. The way that this has transformed shopping and South African suburbs is a testimony to how fast change is happening, as well as the adaptability and resilience of people and companies in the face of adversity.
The BANI framework offers a lens through which to see and structure what’s happening in the world. At least at a surface level, the components of the acronym might even hint at opportunities for response: brittleness could be met by resilience and slack; anxiety can be eased by empathy and mindfulness; nonlinearity would need context and flexibility; incomprehensibility asks for transparency and intuition.
These may well be more reactions than solutions, but they suggest the possibility that responses can be found.
Maybe it’s enough that BANI gives name to the gnawing dread so many of us feel right now, that it acknowledges that it’s not just us, not just this place, not just this blip of time. BANI makes the statement that what we’re seeing isn’t a temporary aberration, it’s a new phase. We’ve gone from water to steam.
Something massive and potentially overwhelming is happening. All of our systems, from global webs of trade and information to the personal connections we have with our friends, families, and colleagues, all of these systems are changing, will have to change. Fundamentally. Thoroughly. Painfully, at times. It’s something that may need a new language to describe. It’s something that will definitely require a new way of thinking to explore.
Jamais Cascio, author and futurist
 Facing the Age of Chaos, Jamais Cascio, April 29, 2020.
 50 CEOs Were Asked About Where South Africa Is Heading – Here’s What They Said, BusinessTech, October 10, 2021.
 CEO Optimism Hits 10-Year High, Bizcommunity.com, January 17, 2022.
 10 Impressive COVID-19 Business Model Pivots You Should Know About, SME South Africa, November 23, 2020.
 Pick n Pay To Buy Bottles Delivery App, BusinessLive, October 20, 2020
 COVID-19: "It Was a Case of Adapt or Die" - Bottles App, SME South Africa, May 4, 2020