Strategic planning in the VUCA world

Leader, you are often at the top of the food chain.  The teams that you lead have an expectation that you will make decisions, and want to be led by you. They expect their leaders to make a hard call when the issues are tough and say what path to take.

Some leaders revel in this.  They like leading the charge, they are confident in their decision making ability and when the going get tough they get tougher.  These leaders are experts. They have conquered the workplace and lead from the front.

This time of Coronavirus has put most leaders in a difficult position because most of us do not know what to do and for some it is testing their leadership.

This is a new time, a time that each of us have never faced before in our life time and so most of us do not know what to do.  We do not understand the exact nature of the virus and we cannot predict a future based on what we have done in the past. We cannot not act as we did last year since this is a whole new situation.

It is the fact that we have previously lived with certainty that is our greatest limiting factor when dealing with this crisis.,

Think about it. The executives make strategic plans, based on the analysis of the internal strengths and weaknesses and match these to the external threats and opportunities that lie outside of the organisation.  These decisions are made with a myriad of assumptions based on the fact that the world today is as it was a month ago and that the world will be the same as it is 1 to 3 years months from now.

Strategies are developed based on the thinking that the world is mechanistic, that if we do x then y would happen.  That there is some formula that if resourced correctly would lead to success

These are two main inaccuracies in these assumptions, they are actually lies because they have never been true.  They have seemed true because the rate of change has been slow enough to allow us from year to year to make tweaks to our plan and adjust to our changing environments as we gather more data and learn more.

The threat of Corona has exposed these fallacies in which we previously felt safe.  The uncertainty of the times is saying to leaders

  • You do not have control
  • You cannot predict the future
  • Your organisations are not mechanistic.

To the leaders and the employees who are  balking at what you have read so far,  I say “Welcome to the VUCA world.”

  • V-  volatile,
  • U – uncertain,
  • C- Complex and
  • A- Ambiguous.

If you have never heard the word before, then get accustomed to it.  If you have never heard the acronym before, then get acustoker to it. This is our new reality, These words have specific meaning as it relates to our world and the way that we deal with it,.

  • Volatile means being subject to frequent, rapid and significant change
  • Uncertain  means events and outcomes are unpredictable
  • Complex means that phenomena are caused  a multiplicity of issues and factors, some of which may be intricately interconnected. This may feel a bit chaotic
  • Ambiguous  means that there is a  lack of clarity and the difficulty of understanding exactly what the situation is.

Sounds like the time that we are in.  We are undergoing rapid and significant change, we cannot predict what will happen a month from now, things feel chaotic and we are not quite clear on what is happening

This is different for us.  We in our Caribbean world we were always pretty sure of what will happen.  We were far enough removed from world events and the fallout from these were often felt sometimes years after.

  • The effects of the 2008 US market crash was felt in 2011.
  • The 2014 Ebola outbreak did not reach the Caribbean, area .
  • The 2002 to 2003 SARS outbreak did not reach the Caribbean, area .
  • In 2009 the H1 N1 pandemic saw just under 100 cases in the Caribbean

Compare this with the fact Corona is in our region, testing our resilience within 4 months of rearing its head in China We are no longer isolated from world events, and by extension illnesses.  This is a know known our Our work has shrunk.

This is new for us.

My prediction is that we are going to experience much more of world phenomena on a quicker basis now.  Coronavirus  is the first wave of us feeling changes within the world system within a short time frame of it first occurring, and we are adjusting to this.

The adoption of new technologies, our increased online presence and of course the introduction of 5g networks (a nod to all conspiracy theorists) – it’s all happening and we are all going to be affected by it in the Caribbean in almost real time.

This is one of the phenomena of the VUCA world.  No one is isolated from the effects of anything that happens in the world.  We are all part of a complex system, that is interconnected and interrelated.

Think of a pond of water.  Regardless of where you throw the stone the ripples are going to be felt on the other side of the pond. The amount of force you use will determine the size of the wave that reaches the shore.

Whatever happens in the world is going to eventually reach our Caribbean shores.  The severity of the issue will determine the gravity of the impact,

What is the call for leaders to deal with the effects of the VUCA world?

Leaders are being asked to embrace the uncertainty and lead from a position of uncertainty.  The offer is to get comfortable in this time of uncertainty by embracing that we do not know what will happen, and to get comfortable with his notion

This notion of accepting that we do not know goes against all of the expectations we have of leadership. Yet , this is the reality as leaders are faced with this new unanticipated situation.  Leaders need to appreciate that it is ok for them not to know what to do in situations like this.

This is not an invitation to shirk our responsibility, or throw hands up in the air. It is an invitation to  adopt a new way of thinking

Let’s go back to the SWOT analysis something that we are all familiar with.

We know that the strengths and the weaknesses are internal factors for the organisations and the threats and opportunities are the external factors for the organisations

In most organisations, the leaders can easily rattle off the strengths.  These are the known knowns.  There is usually good evidence to back these claims up.  for instance we have state of the art technology – a known known.

When we talk about our weaknesses there are things we know and some known unknowns – things that we know that we do not know. While we may need to develop our employees we know that we are cannot state categorically the mental health of all our employees.  We accept this as a known unknown and continue our planning.

The opportunities that lie within our external environment can both be backed up by evidence and things that we know that we don’t know and we accept that these are not a huge risk to us,   It may also present some if the Unknown Known.  These are things that we know but at the point in time we didn’t realise that we know.  It may only come to our attention when triggered by an event.  For instance various manufacturers  switching their product lines to  make hand sanitizer, as well as people at home sewing masks are great examples of Unknown Known

The threats are backed by evidence, those that we accept we don’t have info on and of course the unknown knowns.  These are the threats that are lurking that we don’t know and can’t predict.  Coronavirus is a great example of an unknown unknown.  No one knows more about it than another and I bet that it is there isn’t a  2020 strategic plan that identified this threat or any of its nature .

While it is easy for us to deal with Known knows – we have evidence

We have not been taught to think about much less deal with unknown unknowns.

I know that you want to ask me How then Maxine do we plan for something that we don’t know .  The answer is that we don’t.

It is very often difficult for leaders to even accept that this idea of unknown unknown.  It goes against the narrative of the decisive leader who knows the answer and saves the day.

Whether it is the ego or the weight of expectations, leaders often make wild assumptions, force fit data and create unrealistic scenarios so that they are spared from facing the reality of not knowing and accepting  that they do not know.

The era of the VUCA world where new unthinkable, inconceivable phenomena appear in our system on an ongoing basis is the leaders’ new reality and the quicker we accept this the more effective we will be at leading our teams through it.

This calls for us to reframe our environment and ask new questions. It is no longer enough to recite what are the companies internal  strengths and weaknesses and what are the threat and opportunities of our external environments,  The questions served us in a time when we were certain and had a long view of what was happening in the external work.  Now we need to be much more attuned to our VUCA world than those.

We can ask

  • What do we know – our known knowns that we have evidence to back up
  • What are was aware that do we not know – our known unknowns. Things that we know that we don’t know and are willing to risk it
  • What else can we do with the resources that we have? Unknown Knowns. These answers lead to completely new business lines as they are the things that we know that we are not arare that we know
  • What do we not know that may cause of loss of business or life? These are the unknown Unknowns- things that we do not know or things that will completely blind side us.

These are not all cheerful questions they will have leaders feeling uneasy but it will spark leaders into creating new scenarios that have not been needed before.

Leaders cannot use the past to determine our actions in this unprecedented situation  We need to get comfortable with not knowing and help our teams to get comfortable as well.  We are in the VUCA world.  As world that is volatile uncertain complex and ambiguous.  This is our new constant.

A Platter of its Choice

A friend asked me “What are your plans?”
I explained to him that I no longer have plans.
When I was younger and I needed to make sense of the big world, I carefully made plans and executed them. This was my way of controlling what was around me to get what I needed.
Now, goal setting bores me. I am not here to make sense of the world, but to experience it. I know now that “controlling” the world is a false belief that keeps me in a small box, mitigating risk and protecting myself.
I am limited by what I have learnt, my fears and my experiences. When I see a table, I don’t see the tent, or the ship or the runway for planes that the fearless eyes of a child can see. Through these myopic lens, I make mundane, uncreative and limited plans. When I don’t plan I see beyond the immediate and obvious and enter the realm of the impossible.
The things that I want, are so important to me that I refuse to plan for them. Planning is an old and obsolete tool, that no longer serves me. I want what I want on a grander scale than I can imagine, I want them to be improbable and impossible when they emerge and I want to embrace them with fascination when they appear.
I don’t know what I don’t know. I am human and limited in my thoughts. I focus on WHAT I want, surrender my desires to a higher power and wait for the magic of the universe to serve them up on a platter of its choice.

Failure Ahead – Blog 101

Projects are always exciting.  Sometimes when I think of the type of work that is required, the difference that the outcomes will make to the organization and the type of challenges that the project owner will be faced with I want to say Yes to every strategic project.  I like being pushed, figuring things out and contributing.  It is part service and part feeding the ego.

Managers will accept projects which will assist them in the long run.  They will engage with me to do any project that makes them look good, increases their bottom-line, serves the needs of staff and increases their power base.  Any project that hints of a loss of power will be shunned.

So when it was hinted that I take on a huge project in the organization, I had mixed emotions.  The ego was happy, this was clearly a testament to my tenacity and brilliance since I was chosen, but then the logic kicked in.

How do I say yes to a project when I do not have the authority to change anything?  Why would I enter into a situation that I cannot influence or control?  Why would I sign up for eminent failure?

Instead of saying No I explained my position and stated what I need.  For me to engage in the project I need a clear mandate from the CEO.  I need him to tell all the managers that he has vested his authority for that project to me and that I have his full backing.  As the managers feel the pinch, during implementation or when they complain about my actions the CEO needs to be consistent in his support of my efforts.

This is the only way that the project will work and the only way it will be successful.  Anything less means that I will be doing things without making a difference.  Without his full backing, the project will be held ransom to the whims and fancies of the managers and they will determine what can and cannot be done.

I am not naive enough to pretend that everything will be OK.  I know the players, I have worked with them and though there has never been a contentious issue with any of them, I can predict where resistance will come from.  I don’t give them wrong. It is their worlds that will be changing and they have to deal with the fall out.  They are right to disagree, defend and do what they think is right to maintain the status quo and their power base.

The challenge to get the project done is not theirs, it will be mine.  I cannot pull rank, they do not report to me and some of them are higher up the food chain than I am.  Without the CEO vesting some level of authority into the position the project is doomed to fail. And so will I.

Have you ever worked on a project where you did not have the authority to  effect the needed changes?  Tell me what happened.

Redefining Service – Blog 85

I am reflecting on the two days that I spent facilitating strategic sessions. I notice how my practice is changing and how differently I show up in front of a group.
My first thought is that I did not stick to the script. Before I do a facilitation, I carefully plan an agenda, with all the games, icebreakers and activities to make the points, to bring the team to realization and at times to wake them up. This time I did not use the games that I planned, because the team was not ready for them. Instead of following my carefully planned agenda I let the team lead and followed the twists and turns that they presented during the workshop.
I also did not achieve the objective. I am results oriented and before the session, I work with the team lead to agree desired outcomes. My belief was that at the end of the strategic session, the team should leave with strategies or projects that they are going to embark on over the next two or three years. These are the things that will address an identified issue, resolve a problem, grow the business or take the business to a whole other level. Not so this time. At the end of the session, there were no plans or projects. Yet, the team lead was satisfied. His team had dealt with issues that previously were unnamable. Together they had defined and understood a nebulous issue that was hampering productivity and together were able to name it, and make it tangible and real.
The third thing I noticed is that I pushed back and challenged harder than before. I am always polite with clients saying,”Thank you,” for contributions. Today I called them on contradictory statements, pushed for the truth and even questioned whether a team member was being the devil’s advocate or misaligned with the team’s overall objectives
As I ponder on what made the difference I realized that I relinquished control of the process to participants and became a follower in the process. For once, the participants guided the process.
I also carefully listened to the participants. When they were quiet I did not force a game on them, when they were silent I listened to their expressions and when they were pensive I left them to think.
I can only conclude that I have become a greater servant of the team. I think that while my intention was always to be of service to the team, I always pushed my agenda. I gave myself ticks in the box for the games and activities that were done and praised myself for wittingly thinking of a game that matched the situation. Today as I truly matched the mood and pace of the team, and stayed with them where they were at and did not shift their focus to where I wanted them to be or where I thought they should be I was truly in service to the team. What a different session.

Do you serve from a position of what they need or what you think they need? What would it be like if you changed perceptive?

Feeling Good – Blog 82

Today I spent the day coaching clients in the South of the island – about an hour’s drive from my home.  As always that was a wonderful experience, an opportunity to serve and hold the space for people to explore the issues that are front of mind for them.

I drove home slowly in blinding rain, grateful that I suffered no skids and made it safely home.

Tomorrow I return to the office and prepare for the facilitation of strategic planning sessions in Barbados.  I am looking forward to ending the week leading the management team through a process that will determine the strategies they want to implement over the next two years.

I had a satisfying day and I am looking forward to ending the week in a different island doing the same thing – being of service.

As I wind down for the evening I can only think of how appropriately Nina Simone’s classic “Feeling Good” fits me today.

How was your day? How are you feeling?

Birds flying high, you know how I feel.
Sun in the sky, you know how I feel.
Breeze driftin’ on by, you know how I feel.

It’s a new dawn,
It’s a new day,
It’s a new life
For me

It’s a new dawn,
It’s a new day,
It’s a new life
And I’m feeling good, yeah.

Fish in the sea, you know how I feel.
River running free, you know how I feel.
Blossom on the tree, you know how I feel.

It’s a new dawn,
It’s a new day,
It’s a new life
For me
And I’m feeling good.

Dragonfly out in the sun, you know what I mean,
don’t you know?
Butterflies all havin’ fun, you know what I mean:
Sleep in peace when day is done,
That’s what I mean
And this old world is a new world
And a bold world
For me.

Stars, when you shine.. you know how I feel.
Scent of the pine, you know how I feel.
Oh freedom is mine
And I know how I feel.

It’s a new dawn,
It’s a new day,
It’s a new life
For me
And I’m feeling good,