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Negotiating the maze

This pandemic has clearly shown that if we thought we were in control, we are not—those whom we have entrusted to lead us, from schools to businesses or even nations are helpless. Our fragility as a society has been harshly exposed. Whether you believe this pandemic was due, inevitable, or just an off chance, our personal and collective values and beliefs are in danger of being rocked to the core.

If like many you believe that this particular pandemic won't be the last one in the next 15-20 years, we are going to need to live with the extensional threat that future uncertainty brings. We will need to learn to live with and accept uncertainty. Indeed, maybe this will be the new normal. Given that as individuals, we may not be able to impact on society at a general level, where might we be able to make our impact? As business leaders, perhaps we can influence our organisations to deal with a 'new normal'.

Organisations may come to accept that 'uncertainty' will prevail at all times. If so, there is a need for them to pre-plan for it and build systems for dealing with unknown external threats. How will they in the future deal with a crisis? What are the appropriate protocols for risk management? How should governance be applied in the future? How should investors interrogate risk? How can we deal with risks in supply chains, risks in the workforce, risks in our changing relationship with all aspects of the external world?

If it is not addressed, the threat of uncertainty can cause widespread fear, helplessness and anxiety in a workforce. What can we do to shift our reaction and learn to sit with it more effectively? Here are five steps we can all take.

1. You are not alone

The simple act of recognising that none of us is alone in this situation may make uncertainty less intimidating. 'All in this together' can be a comforting sentiment as well as being pretty true. Being able to share with other like-minded organisations can bring comfort and can also assist in the spread of best practice and reliable learning points.

2. Some things won't change

Celebrating things that won't change can bring some consistency on which change can be built. If the organisation has a driving purpose (not just making money but making it well) and well-established principles (values, perhaps), it is possible to shape actions in a crisis, drawing on a well-accepted culture within the organisation. Drawing on a well-developed culture will inform behaviours that will demonstrate constancy and consistency through difficult times and will set up the organisation to flourish when the good times return.

3. Communicate regularly and fully

Regular communication has merit. Even if there is no new 'news', Making clear the fundamental principles that you are living by, and assuring people that you continue to invest in time and effort to return to 'normal' times, will help people deal with ongoing ambiguity. And this is not confined to regular emails or town hall briefings, but a considered approach to listening and briefing small groups and even individuals. The impact of a personal approach will be significant. Simultaneously, align these regular communications to your external network. Be that customers, suppliers and partners. All of whom will also be touched by uncertainty.

And fully? Many of us are inhibited by giving what might be seen as bad news. Still, if we are to be authentic, it will not do any harm in conveying areas where uncertainty or possible adverse outcomes are being faced. Appreciating the negative will give confidence in the more positive messages being delivered about the progress being made.

4. Share the pain and the gain

The present uncertainty is leaving many financially disadvantaged and the 'new normal', is likely to require the alignment of financial claims with recovery and survival in a manner that shares the load. There is an opportunity to message 'in it together' through the simple, but challenging action of ensuring that leaders are seen to be making the sacrifices that are being asked of the organisation at large. For many organisations, survival is demanding significant cuts in reward levels. Given that shorter-term survival will enable the organisation to return to longer-term prosperity, there may be opportunities to repair the damage to individuals' financial positions, once 'normal' levels are recovered. Sharing the gains in the same way across the whole organisation could provide the boost that will be needed to get businesses back to higher performance levels.

5. Visioning success

Purely focusing on managing the here and now will not deliver future prosperity. Nor will it engender confidence in the future or the sense of renewal that will be needed for the organisation to address the challenge of restarting in the 'new normal'. This may not be the time for grand ambition (that will be an essential future activity), but it is time for a vision of the medium-term: what will our first six months in the 'new normal' look like and what is the direction in which we will need to travel?

There may be harsh lessons in dealing with the present uncertainty, but this uncertainty may persist and become more frequent. We may have to condition ourselves to deal with a continuing VUCA* world. So, there is a sixth step we should take. Please write it down! Record the lessons we have learnt from this baptism of fire and store this to help build future resilience.

Negotiating the maze

Written by Pedro Avery and Peter Ward, Senior Consultant at Telos Partners 17 April 2020

*VUCA: Volatility; Uncertainty; Complexity; Ambiguity


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