In recent years, it seems that the only “sure bet” is that something unexpected and dramatic is constantly around the corner. From the global pandemic and continuously changing response to new conflicts and wildly swinging financial markets, each day seems to bring a dramatic turn of events.
Even more routine areas seem to be in flux constantly. Several decades of “best practices” in areas from supply chain management to HR policy became irrelevant seemingly overnight, and well-tuned systems and processes needed to be reformulated in short order.
It’s challenging to lead in times like these, as a well-formulated plan that was perfect yesterday becomes useless very quickly.
It can be tempting to abandon any attempts at long-term planning in times like these due to the feeling that these efforts are irrelevant. After all, why invest the time and resources in an exercise that ends up creating outputs that aren’t useful? While it may seem cathartic to abandon longer-term planning and allow events to dictate one’s response, it’s not a very effective way to lead.
So, how can you manage and lead during these times if that isn’t the answer? Here are some ideas.
Open your “Organizational Ears”
In more predictable times, most leaders can draw upon their past experiences as a helpful tool in determining how to move their teams and organization forward. Uncertainty neuters that “superpower” to some extent, forcing leaders to develop new and unconventional responses rather than relying on what was successful in the past.
Rather than doubling down on what worked well in simpler times, strive to listen rather than speak and create new ways to get information. At an individual level, seek diverse opinions from your teams and others outside technology, listen to other media sources than what you’d usually consume, and pause before dismissing ideas that might seem outside the norm.
Organizationally, your teams likely have access to vast troves of data. Work with peers in business units to develop new reporting and analysis tools that provide the organization with a broader understanding of the business and broader markets.
Invest in Scenario Planning
When military leaders are faced with a complex challenge, they’ll often “war game” potential scenarios. Whether it’s an armed conflict, cyberattack, or disruption to a critical logistical route, the military routinely pits its planning, policies, and procedures against an adversary to test its ability to survive in adverse conditions.
Hopefully, there’s little chance you’ll be managing life-and-death military actions, but scenario planning can be instrumental in uncertain times. This process doesn’t need to be complex or require Hollywood-inspired dark rooms filled with maps and staff.
A war game could be as simple as assembling a handful of staff from different groups and asking a question like, “What if we could no longer source materials from Europe?” Spend an hour or two discussing the implications of this scenario and how you would analyze the problem, develop immediate and longer-term mitigations, and how they’d be implemented and prioritized.
If you find your team unable to respond to some element of a scenario, you likely identified a potential vulnerability that could be worth addressing. If there’s an irreplaceable supplier, infrastructure component, or leadership structure that would severely impact your company’s ability to operate, it’s probably an area worthy of deeper investigation and mitigation planning.
Several tools and companies are devoted to helping with scenario planning, but there’s no need to overcomplicate your initial foray into this domain. You might even have colleagues or staff on-hand that will relish the opportunity to be on the “red team” and concoct challenging scenarios that force you to explore the impacts of uncertainty on your infrastructure and business.
Invest in Long-Term Flexibility
One paradox of uncertain times is that they can cause leaders to avoid investing in longer-term projects out of a fear that the investment will become obsolete as the world changes. This is a legitimate concern, and there are likely libraries worth of books that could be written about initiatives that seemed like great ideas in 2019 that were subsequently abandoned several months later.
However, there are long-term investments that are relevant in uncertain times, and they generally fall into 2 categories. First are investments in your organizational “ears” that allow you to identify and assess changing conditions more quickly. The second category of investments creates more flexibility within your organization.
Investing in your organizational “ears” can help identify trends and market changes before they create significant business impact. Suppose you can use technology to identify and communicate “bumps” in the supply chain before they turn into crises or quickly forecast the financial outcomes of various scenarios based on your wargaming. In that case, you’ll empower your colleagues and cement the value of technology in the eyes of the broader organization.
Review your longer-term technology investments and ask which ones create the most organizational flexibility as the operating environment becomes uncertain. A multi-year cost take-out program on your supply chain that seeks to remove flexibility and optimize cost is obviously not in this category. However, an investment in flexible development capacity or new rapid development tools and methodologies can allow you to react to changing conditions.
Take the time to evaluate your vendors and partners, and look for those who can react quickly to fill diverse needs. Similarly, investigate where you source everything from hardware to services. A “sole source” contract might be good for the bottom line, but if your suppliers and partners are limited to specific regions or constrained by global supply chains, a good deal on a product you can’t get is far worse than slightly higher costs to get what you need when you need it.
An uncertain operating environment can be frustrating and challenging. However, it also provides opportunities and provides a chance for technology leaders to help their organizations identify, analyze, and mitigate whatever an uncertain world throws their way.