Leading Through Uncertainty
Updated: Sep 4
As I sat down to write this blog post, I was visited by the ghost of Charles Dickens. Well, not the spectre, but certainly the words that open one of his many great novels, Tale of Two Cities:
It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of light, it was the season of darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair.
The COVID pandemic is defining our time for now, and predictably into the future. You may relate to this time as a winter of despair, a season of darkness, and the worst of times. Within any of these characterizations lies uncertainty. Uncertainty can derail our focus and eat up our energy. But with the right leadership to rely on, there is hope.
Workplaces and work teams are defined by their people. Our normal and individual stress responses, as we bear witness to historic events, impact our outlook and relationships with colleagues, team members and clients.
The initial period of uncertainty born of the public health crisis was for many individuals and teams a time of deep worry. Bad news travels fast, and as news feeds continuously updated the deepening of the crisis, we fixated on the immediate threat that was before us. A threat response is like a knee-jerk reaction, a kind of flight or fight response. We could not be calm and reflective. We were in panic mode. Work suffered until we grew an awareness of what we were dealing with.
With that greater awareness we made a shift from panic to recognizing we had to learn to work together in a period of uncertainty. For how long remains anyone’s guess, but employees and teams, just like individuals, shifted from initial disbelief to thinking about how to help others, help our organization, and help our community. This required that focus and energy be devoted to understanding and solving problems.
If it is your experience that the initial period of crisis and disbelief led to paralyzed decision-making that has not been addressed, you and your team will continue to be tested through a protracted period of uncertainty. If it is your experience that the initial period led teams and workplaces to centralize, hunker down and limit decision-making to a few people, you have to ask if that leadership strategy will serve you well through a protracted period of uncertainty. A playbook to lead through uncertainty is likely being written, but for now here are a few thoughts about re-imagining your leadership role (regardless of your title) as we lead ourselves and our colleagues through uncertainty:
· Pre and Post Thinking. Organizations that early on prepared their employees for what might come and looked at options for business recovery had a leg up as they navigated the initial stages of the Covid-19 crisis. However, even the best-intended planning cannot prepare leaders for the character and duration of the uncertainty that appears before us. Many business leaders I’ve spoken to in response to this reality are framing their thinking in pre-vaccine or post-vaccine time horizons. We may not know much about the “when,” but we do know that things will be very different post-vaccine, and that the pre-vaccine period is likely to remain turbulent. It’s not much to hold onto, but it is something that helps us to sign-post the future for ourselves and for our team. The demarcation of two distinct time horizons, plus reflecting on what we know and thinking about the future in terms of our area of work provides a degree of certainty. From there we can build a framework for thinking about our clients, priorities and action plans.
· Three scenarios. The worlds of high finance and disaster intervention have long excelled in scenario planning and preparedness. I like taking a page from scenario planners who think in terms of three hypothetical situations. The first is, what might the best-case scenario look like in terms of how we predict, plan and prepare for a situation that is active and will continue to unfold over months, and perhaps longer? The second is, what might the worst-case scenario look like for our team and team members, our business, our clients, and ourselves as individuals? What intervention planning and preparing are required immediately? The third is, what might the base-case scenario look like, which is the one stripped of all emotion and drama? We will act on the facts and data, and the advice of experts. If we work well together and do the work, where will that take us in all likelihood? What must we do to prepare? Arguably, our energy should be vested in the base-case scenario.
· Iterate and experiment thoughtfully. We are wise to change work processes during the pandemic as our work environment, health policy and our client needs necessitate, but remember that wild experimentation or radically changing things to seize the moment is also destabilizing. People can only handle so much disruption before hitting the wall. Look for signs of things that are stable, known and predictable, and focus your attention and that of your colleagues on things that are certain to counterbalance all the things for which our footing is uncertain.
· Working back from the future. We are busy solving today’s problems, rightfully so, as clients’ needs have changed in such a short period of time. However, there is great value to working back from the future. For example, let’s say your business has moved past the worst of the crisis. Your collective focus is to re-open and re-establish the business, spend some time in the future, and work back from that vision. This exercise can be informative and comforting. Imagine spending part of an upcoming staff meeting describing the team, your clients and the business a year after a vaccine has been distributed and the new normal has had a chance to take hold.
· Your 2020 tale of resilience. Grit author Angela Duckworth suggests we begin preparing our 2020 resilience story that we will tell in 2025. The story begins: “When the Covid-19 pandemic first hit, (insert “I” or “my team”) was (insert three words to describe the first days and weeks or months), and then “I” or “we” became…(fill in with three words that tell the tale of what you did that led to better outcomes and lots of learning).
Business luminary Warren Buffet said recently that “we cannot predict, but we must prepare.” For me, that speaks to leading ourselves and our work teams by recognizing that learning is inseparable from our work; that we will focus on facts, not emotion; and how we lead is sprinkled with a healthy dose of realistic optimism and an understanding that uncertainty, like the virus, is with us for a while yet.
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