Beyond the pandemic: Learning to embrace uncertainty

By James Berry
James Berry, Director of the UCL Online MBA, on how organisations can learn to embrace uncertainty and think beyond COVID-19...

Right now, business leaders are laser focused on the survival of their firms in current conditions, almost to the exclusion of all future planning in some cases. But their justifiable focus on the present cannot risk becoming a ‘tunnel vision’ that compromises the businesses ability to realise its growth potential in the future. 

It is impossible to say when more market clarity will emerge as the pandemic continues to create uncertainty and big political milestones like Brexit could also deliver a profound change for many UK and European businesses. The leaders that take the right action now and keep moving despite the current volatility will not only be more likely to survive the current crisis but could emerge as the new leaders in their fields with robust and well-rounded businesses fit for the future, whatever that may hold. 

Data driven decision-making

Key to understanding and responding to where the shifting business environment is moving involves creating a broad network of information. To meet this challenge, it is crucial that leaders have reliable information at their fingertips. Multiple sources of information gathered from across the business (and beyond) are essential in forming a clear picture of where markets may be moving. Business leaders need to be focused on expanding the scope of their knowledge and then thinking seriously about how they harness their business information to make sure they give themselves the best chance to understand what is going on. And importantly, where the gaps are. Knowledge is power, but uncertainty is not the same as ignorance.

Multi-perspective data should also be used as a fundamental part of the decision-making process and to extrapolate future possibilities in scenario planning. The future is inherently uncertain and planning for the future in times of major upheaval is not often going to give you clear cut answers or paths. This does not lessen the importance of future planning; conversely, it increases its prominence. A captain of a ship in calm waters can look out for miles and consider options at leisure. A captain in the middle of a tempest often has limited visibility and is bombarded with urgent information. This requires that leaders need to plan but may need to cycle through the planning process much more rapidly and frequently. 

First and foremost though, leaders need to be in a position to personally understand what the data being presented to them says. If they don’t have these skills, they will be reliant on the handful of people in the organisation that do understand it. No matter how good these trusted advisors are, if the leader is in the dark on what their data sources are telling them it immediately diminishes their ability to ask the right questions and to lead confidently, even in more stable times.

The Need for Speed

When people are faced with high levels of uncertainty, they often respond in a habitual way, resorting to past patterns of behaviour or do nothing. High levels of uncertainty require focused attention to change patterns of action. It is also easy to get lost in planning. It is imperative that leaders use the best information they can get their hands on and make a decision…then act…re evaluate…re plan then act again.  

Similarly, an increase in speed of decision-making can be associated with a loss of control over the results of those decisions, but this is not always true in business. Like a car, a business needs to be moving and retain a certain amount of momentum for the driver to remain nimble and responsive. Pulling back and retreating may limit your ability to take advantage of new market opportunities and create a more rigid organisation just when you need increased flexibility. 

Investing in individuals

As many businesses have shifted their approaches and output in response to the pandemic, it is also important to have an understanding of the individuals who already work within an organisation and have a data-based skills analysis approach in place. People employed to do one specific job may well be useful as the organisation pivots to a new place and unless there is clarity on the full skillset of each individual, it could be that talents that are already in the business could be overlooked. 

Now is also the right time to upskill the workforce already on the payroll and trained in the company culture. Offering to continue their education and professional development, online, while time spent on commuting is at an all-time low, is an investment in your workforce as well as an investment in your organisation’s adaptability.

Hiring in times of uncertainty is difficult, particularly if the organisation is shifting constantly. If you’re recruiting externally and choosing between two candidates for a role, one a specialist and the other a qualified generalist with a flexible attitude to adopt change, in the current environment, it makes sense to seriously consider the latter. A broad spectrum of experience and the right mindset will contribute to the agility of your organisation to respond to the unknown challenges ahead. 

Embracing uncertainty

I’ve seen a lot of understandable worry about the conditions in which businesses are now expected to operate and it is fair to say that every leader in uncertain times will have moments of extreme anxiety and self-doubt. However, now is not the time for retreat. Leadership is not defined by the absence of difficulty but is the way in which it is overcome. The leaders that can embrace uncertainty and put the right information flow, approach and people in place to take advantage of the opportunities that present themselves will be in a position to grow through the uncertain times. If you are in retreat mode, one of your competitors may well be in growth mode and that will represent by far the biggest threat.  

For more information on business topics in Europe, Middle East and Africa please take a look at the latest edition of Business Chief EMEA.

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