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.