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Leading in Times of Uncertainty

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By Emily Johnston

One thing that’s become increasingly apparent in the past months is just how complex and uncertain our world is. Just when we think we’ve got it all figured out, something totally unexpected happens – like a global pandemic.

How do we lead in the face of so much uncertainty, when there’s no best practice to draw from, when there’s no single best solution and when even our top level leaders are out of their depth? How can we provide clarity to others about which direction to take when even knowing what will happen in one week’s time seems like an unsolvable mystery?

Clearly we need a different kind of leadership. These days, leadership is much less about your job title, being an expert, managing others or reverting to the command and control paradigms of the past. So what is it all about? And how can we lead in these times of uncertainty?

To begin with, it helps to make a bit of sense of the complexity we are facing. The thing is, even before COVID19 hit, our world was already pretty complex. 

Making sense of complexity

Image from Warren Lynch on Medium.

Dave Snowden differentiates four kinds of decision-making scenarios with his Cynefin framework. Complex scenarios, he explains, are characterised by having a non-linear relationship between cause and effect. This differs from simple scenarios where you can rely on the predictability of the relationship between cause and effect. For example, if your light bulb breaks, the solution will almost always be to change the light bulb. Pretty obvious, right? Because this is such a predictable solution, it can be categorised as a best practice. 

Then there are complicated scenarios. Here some expertise is needed to analyse the problem, yet there is still a logical relationship between cause and effect. If your computer breaks down, for instance, you will probably need to take it to an expert to figure out what’s wrong. Because there is not a single, logical solution, you have to work with good practice. 

The thing is, we tend to approach many situations as though they are complicated. Yet in reality, much of the time we are actually facing a complex scenario. This means that to understand the relationship between cause and effect we have to look with hindsight, and recognise that there may be many different, and perhaps seemingly disconnected, factors at play. We can’t draw on best practice, we can’t easily analyse the issue and we can’t simply predict what will happen based on past experiences. 

Take, for example, a global challenge such as climate change. There are many different factors which contribute to worsening – or reducing – the effects of climate change. These factors span almost every area of our existence from our natural ecosystems, to our economic and social systems. And it’s tied up with many other complex challenges, such as poverty and inequality, industrial agriculture, and so on. It’s what we call a wicked problem. Like many threads in a huge knot, it’s far from easy to untangle and to know where one begins and ends. 

It’s the same in our work in teams and organisations. Just think about all the different dynamics which are at play when a group of humans come together. We react, interact, trigger, inspire and impact each other in unpredictable ways. There is no tried and tested approach to navigating the beauty and strangeness of human behaviour. The nature of our work is complex too. Even the best project management and most thorough planning does not guarantee a successful outcome – as we’ve experienced more than ever over the past months. 

How can we command and control in this kind of environment? We can’t and we shouldn’t. Unless, of course, we find ourselves in the final decision-making scenario of the Cynefin framework: chaotic. This normally applies to emergencies scenarios and in these situations we have to simply act first and figure it out later. This is not to say that command and control leadership doesn’t have a value: in some kinds of organisations and scenarios, like the military or emergency services, it makes sense. Yet in many other kinds of organisations where we are mostly operating in the complex space, other models for leading and decision-making can be more effective. 

So how can we lead in complex and uncertain situations? Well, there’s no best practice! But there are some principles which can support us. Here are a few.

Take small steps

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When we’re working in complexity, we have to probe, sense and then respond. In other words, we can take a small action step, then we see what happens and based on this we can take our next step.

This is the kind of thinking that we see a lot in the world of innovation and fail-fast start up culture. Instead of planning a product for a year, only to discover at the very end that no one actually wants to buy it or that it has major design flaws, you develop it in smaller iterations. You build a simple version or a first feature, test it with customers (probe), get their feedback and see how they react (sense) and then adaptat it for the next iteration (respond). 

This approach doesn’t only work for product development or other kinds of projects. We can use it in our own approach to learning, to develop ourselves as leaders, to try things out with our teams.

We don’t have to have the whole thing figured out beforehand. We don’t have to have all the answers or be an expert. We don’t have to know exactly where we’ll end up. We just have to figure out the first step and have the courage to take it. This is not good or best practice, it’s emergent practice. 

Focus on creating supportive conditions

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To work in complexity, the focus shifts from the outcomes to the process, and to creating the right conditions to create the best possible chance of getting our desired outcome.

Dave Snowden illustrates this concept with the example of a children’s birthday party. If you are organising a birthday party, you start with a desirable outcome in mind: to create a fun birthday party. To achieve this, you prepare games, food and everything else needed. In other words, you create supportive conditions. Yet once the children arrive, you don’t delegate them tasks. You don’t assign them roles. You don’t try to control the fun. You let the children decide how to best create their own fun – potentially in ways you never would have thought of yourself. You let the fun emerge – or not, as the case may be.

We can take this principle and apply it to our teams and organisations. We can ask ourselves: what outcome do we desire to create in our work? What are the conditions which support us to do so? And what conditions support us to navigate the uncertainty we are collectively facing?

These might be very practical things, such as the way you structure your internal communication, or things which are less easy to grasp, such as having trust in the process and feeling safe to take risks. This is different for everyone, so if you want to apply this in your context, the best way to do so is to reflect together in your team about what conditions support you, individually and as a team.

It can also be helpful to reflect on moments in the past where you navigated challenges together and look at the conditions which supported you to do so. What were the mindset, values and behaviour that you and the others brought to the table? What were the elements of your team culture and group structures in that moment? How can you create more of those conditions in the present?

Build psychological safety 

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One crucial supportive condition for leading and working in these times is psychological safety.

This is a concept developed by Amy Edmondson (1999), organisational behavioural scientist of Harvard. She defines it as: ‘a shared belief held by members of a team that the team is safe for interpersonal risk taking […] It describes a team climate characterized by interpersonal trust and mutual respect in which people are comfortable being themselves.’

In a two year study on team performance at Google, researchers found that the most important dynamic ingredient which set successful teams apart was psychological safety. It’s also a crucial factor which supports us to work and lead in uncertainty.

When there are high levels of psychological safety, it’s safe to take risks and make mistakes, without fear of being ridiculed or rejected. This is essential to be able to probe, sense and respond, to innovate and experiment – accepting that mistakes are inevitable when there is no one best practice to follow.

When there is psychological safety in a team it also means it’s safe to discuss challenges and problems and to ask for help, which is so important as it reminds us that we are not alone and that we are not the only one who is struggling. If we can talk about our challenges, we can face them collectively.

Share the information you do and don’t have

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We humans are sensemaking creatures, and in the absence of information we will make up stories to fill the gaps.

What’s more, a lot of the time our own versions of reality are much worse than what’s really going on. When these stories start to build force, they can take on a life of their own and have real consequences. Suddenly your decision not to communicate something seemingly small can lead to stories spreading about the future of people’s jobs, maybe even resulting in people brushing up their resumes, even though you had no intention of letting anyone go.

This does not mean you have to have all the answers. But what you can do is to practice sharing the information you do have, the information you do not have, and what you are doing to bridge this gap. This also opens up the space to face uncertainty together. Perhaps someone else in the team actually has a great idea which you hadn’t even considered, which you would never get to hear if you are too busy hiding the things you don’t know.

It’s ok not to have all the answers

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This brings us to the next point. We so often pressure ourselves as leaders to have all the answers. Yet in this kind of complexity this is not always possible as there is often no single right or wrong answer.

Therefore as leaders it’s really helpful to shift our thinking away from needing to have all the answers, towards accepting that this is not possible, cutting ourselves some slack, and being honest with our teams without fearing losing our authority.

This shift enables us to own the things we don’t know yet and to proactively work on closing the gaps in our knowledge. It also puts us in the position to seek advice and input from others around us and to tap into the collective experience and intelligence within our team.

By doing so we also remind others that pretty much no-one has everything figured out and that is ok. Instead of spending our energy on pretending to have it all together, we can focus on learning and finding new solutions. 

Speak to the discomfort

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Along with letting go of pretending to have all the answers, it can also be a powerful shift to move away from pretending everything is fine when it might not be.

This does not mean you should let go of any sense of control over the situation and give in to all the fears and doubts present, or to shift the emotional responsibility to someone else. Yet if you are facing challenging times together, it is important to acknowledge that.

It can be really helpful to simply say: I know these times are hard and there are a lot of things which are unclear and scary for all of us, yet I appreciate how we are all coming together to figure it out together and I fully trust in us as a team to do so. By doing so, you once again remind everyone that they are not alone and that the current situation is hard for everyone. Speaking to discomfort takes courage and vulnerability yet it can be a powerful way to get unstuck and band together.

Stay connected to the bigger picture

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As we talked about earlier, when we’re working in complexity and uncertainty, the focus shifts away from trying to create specific results. Nevertheless it’s still crucial to be clear on your desirable outcome.

Rather than setting specific targets, it can be helpful to create broader goals and to accept that the steps to reach these goals might be different than originally planned. The beauty of working in smaller steps and iterations is that it gives us the opportunity to pivot and find new solutions – as so many of us have had to do in the last year. 

You can reflect together in your team: what are other options we have to bring our vision to life? If we decide to pivot, what are we willing to compromise on and change, and what do we want to hold on tight to? In this way your vision can also provide some stability for you and your team, remembering that not everything has to change.

Staying focused on the bigger picture, on your vision and mission, also supports you to bring your team together to work together. Remembering why you are doing what you are doing – and who you are doing it for – can reconnect you to the motivation and passion which is vitally important to keep the flame burning, no matter how low it gets.

Keeping our eyes on the horizon helps to get some perspective. It helps us to remember: yes, it is hard for us right now, but it’s hard for everyone right now. And that is ok. It’s a complex world out there and we are all just doing our best to figure it out, one step at a time.

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