How to conquer complexity and uncertainty

conquer complexity and uncertainty

Not many organisations are going to come out better than they went in, but some will emerge significantly ahead of their competitors and it won’t be through hanging on to outdated plans and strategies for too long, or blind hope, writes

I experienced my first round of organisational and career upheaval when my very first week in the full-time workforce coincided with Black Monday, the stock market crash of 1987.  I wrote my first “how to cope in a period of economic turbulence” article during the dotcom bubble triggered downturn of 2001 (relying on the ‘massive’ 14 years’ experience I had at that time).  The concepts in this new article were as true for both these downturns as they are for the current one and will be for the ones yet to come.  As they say, “plus ca change, plus c’est la meme chose”.

It is tempting to look at any exceptional times and search for equally unusual solutions.  Surely a unique situation such as this requires a new and equally unique response, you might think, something as innovative and unknown as the problem we are facing.

The longer this goes for the easier it is for people to lose connection, to fall out of sync with decisions or changes in direction and to feel sidelined or left out.  You will need to foster new habits, at least for the meantime.

In fact, the good news is that the evidence suggests that the way to respond is actually much more about going back to basics, by paying attention to the things that have always been true.

At the heart of any organisational response to uncertainty is purpose.  There is nothing more important at a time of personal or organisational insecurity than to provide a touchstone to help leaders and employees know how to make decisions and provide guidance to their teams.

Whilst purpose stays the same, and even assumes more importance, your strategy of course, is likely to change rapidly.  And you shouldn’t be shy about changing it – even if it’s the best strategy you’ve ever had and you only put the finishing touches to it 6 months ago.  Many organisations are held back from changing their strategy, even at the best of times by the social element of strategy setting – deference to more senior and experienced people and to ideas that have become accepted “truth” over many years and cycles of strategy setting.  Now is the opportunity to test these accepted organisational norms, let go of previous assumptions and received wisdom and challenge ideas, whoever holds them.  Now is not the time for politeness.

There are three drivers of your strategy – your purpose and mission, the unique capabilities and characteristics of your organisation and the external challenge facing you.  The first two have not changed and now is not the time to change them. Instead, focus on how you reapply them to the new World reality that faces you through a refreshed strategy.

Whilst purpose stays the same, and even assumes more importance, your strategy of course, is likely to change rapidly.

Not many organisations are going to come out better than they went in, but some will emerge significantly ahead of their competitors and it won’t be through hanging on to outdated plans and strategies for too long, or blind hope.

The other thing that you will have for a long time once this is over is the people that you carry with you and the culture you build or reinforce during this time.  People have long memories and will remember how you chose to treat their colleagues or ex-colleagues and how your behaviour demonstrated what you really believe in.

The other thing you need to figure out is what you can learn from how your organisation has responded to the current crisis – in two categories.  Firstly – what could you do better next time a crisis hits (which, it will) based on what you have learnt from how you responded to this crisis; and secondly what you have learnt about your organisation and how it works that you can carry forward once this is over to make this an opportunity to improve not just survive?

Finally, and most importantly you have to figure out how to keep the lifeblood of your organisation going …the day to day sharing of ideas, information, decisions and feedback that keeps every business afloat.  Whilst the flow from purpose to strategy to execution, in the culture you have built seems straightforward, it immediately gets messy when it encounters people.  The hard daily business of most businesses is the messy set of interactions between executives with responsibilities for different parts of an organisation, between leaders and their teams and between colleagues trying to get stuff done.

At the heart of any organisational response to uncertainty is purpose.  There is nothing more important at a time of personal or organisational insecurity than to provide a touchstone to help leaders and employees know how to make decisions and provide guidance to their teams.

For the first few weeks, the impact of the loss of the regular channels for resolving issues isn’t missed too much – after all, we are used to people taking long vacations, being sick or the summer closedown period.  However, the longer this goes for the easier it is for people to lose connection, to fall out of sync with decisions or changes in direction and to feel sidelined or left out.  You will need to foster new habits, at least for the meantime.

Successful organisations will be those that do the best job of not just of staying true to their purpose and values, not only of re-assessing and changing strategy, not solely looking after their people and maintaining engagement and culture but keeping connection between the most important people in the organisation – those that bring strategy to life on a daily basis – middle managers, the permafrost.

The good news in all this is that the answer to the current confusion and complexity in the world isn’t more complexity – it’s actually finding a path to simplicity and identifying the one or two big symbols of what’s important to your organisation right now which will help people get through.

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