Navigating uncertainty in an age of perpetual crises

Or, Six Shifts on the Road to 2030

What if this goes on for two years?

I asked my team, stoked their fears

No more holding our breath,

Hoping for the best,

Watching our peers.

Time to embrace different living,

Find strength to keep on giving

No more easy sailing

Comfort Zone staying,

In the shallows swimming.

Time to embrace the raging seas,

“Out of your depth?” the doubters’ tease

Not aware our feet are firm

Changing our subtle form

A new army rises from its knees.

Back in September I asked my team a simple question – “What if this goes on for two years?” In the summer, the World Health Organisation President said we should expect two years of restrictions. It made me think, what would I do differently if this went on until Spring 2022? Since then we have had good news about a new vaccine, and a series of disappointing and continuing restrictions that have pushed normality over the horizon.

Amid this season it is easy to become discouraged and downhearted. We need each other more than ever to listen, be sympathetic and remind each other of our love and care for each other. However, if we raise our gaze beyond the immediate circumstances, I believe there are a number of shifts that are happening due to the fracturing of normality. I have outlined six strategic shifts that I see happening and what you can do within your organisation to help it prepare for a different world.

OPERATING MINDSET: Shift from Resources to Resourcefulness (What you know is less important than how you think)

In a hyper-VUCA (Volatile, Uncertain, Complex, Ambiguous) world the speed of change means no one can cover a large enough domain of expertise to become the de facto guru. It turns out in a knowledge economy, it is not the accumulation of knowledge that gives you an edge – but the ability to extract actionable insights from the wealth of knowledge that you have access to.

A strong and diverse network with a rapid speed of response becomes more important than hoarding resources. Informed instincts become more important, and speed of adaptation becomes a competitive advantage, even in some places a survival attribute. Seek to build an open and diverse group of voices that you listen to and allow to speak into your life and leadership.

LEADERSHIP: Shift from Positional to Purposeful power (Who you are is more important than your role or title)

Old hierarchies have been overturned almost overnight. Those leaders that kept their people in line by walking past their desks and looking over their shoulder are powerless in a work-from-home world that runs on flexibility and trust. In an age where everything is available and accessible online, people are voting with their fingertips for the people and programmes they want to follow. Command and control is very hard to implement down broadband cables.

When location is irrelevant, meeting people has never been easier, keeping people has never been harder. We must stop giving orders and start listening to questions in order to motivate people to want to do what we want them to do…take 50% longer to share the vision than you think necessary. People will follow when they believe in the purpose.

ENTREPRENEURIAL SPIRIT: Shift from Administration to Exploration (Your Comfort Zone is shrinking every day!)

At every organization there are those that are simply keeping the engine ticking over – either knowingly or unknowingly. When crises after crises hits us and business as usual becomes business unusual, what happens to the person who can only operate within a limited frame of skills or experiences? When we are off the map, and in uncharted territory the heart of the explorer returns.

It was the privilege of our earlier ancestors to go into parts of the world that weren’t on any map. That task now falls to us – but not geographic exploration, rather a re-inventing of the economic model that is built on new principles. Look to the fringes of your organisation for inspiration, there are probably people already adapting to the future within your organisation but don’t have access to the top decision makers. Find, empower, and follow these emerging leaders.

ENGAGEMENT: Shift from Assumed to Asked / Online to Engaged (What does discretionary effort look like when no one is watching?)

A key question for leaders in the future will be “What are the measurements and metrics that help you understand if your message and mission is being followed and making an impact?” In the old world we knew if people were paying attention because when we looked round the Town Hall, we could see how many people showed up and who was paying attention. In the new world we have no (immediate) idea what the organisation are thinking and if anyone is following. We have lost the most important communicator of all – body language.

We must now deliberately take the time and effort to ask people what they think and build an expectation of transparency and openness, which will enable them to be honest. Don’t take attendance for engagement, learn how to get under the skin of your organisation and get their 100% honest, unfiltered opinion. By the way, this will probably be painful!

FRAGILITY: Shift from Risk to Resilience (Only the bendable will survive!)

Much of our past thinking about the future has been to avoid risks and find opportunity. Now we can see that the events we need to navigate are too big to avoid, and the key uncertainties are timing and scale of impact. In this world we must practice our crises response way ahead of time. Resilience is the idea that we come back stronger after a severe test. We must understand the fragility of our system and what vulnerabilities could be exposed during a shock.

Those that thrive in the new world will be those that see the value in investing time, effort and money in small adjustments to build resilience ahead of the coming shocks, rather than pay massive bills after it has happened. Practice worst case scenario thinking…be brave enough to ask the really tough questions and work back from there. Small bets, less borrowing, patient growth.

VALUE: Shift from Value Extraction to Value Creation (How to make more with less?)

We must find a way to generate value without reducing our resources. Resource scarcity drove our understanding of economics in the past – get as much as possible as quickly as possible and earn as much as possible. This is a zero sum game when our resources are reducing the inhabitable portion of our planet.

People will always pay for a service or a product that they value. The organisations that thrive in the future will find a way to generate that value without contributing to the ever diminishingresources equation. It is possible but hard. Every future business case will need to explain how the idea contributes positively to the accretive impact on our natural and human capital. Our number one challenge is to leave this Earth a richer, more beautiful, more diverse place than how we found it.

There is no better way to sum all this up than by the saying of the late, great football manager Gerard Houllier who died last week and once said:

“Leadership is a transfer of emotion”

It is the heart that connects to other human beings and inspires them. If we want to make an impact in the midst of an ever changing and uncertain future we must dig deep to find our inherent values and passions and be the person who others will trust enough to share their deep frustrations and emotional struggles. If we are genuinely following this path, the rest will follow naturally.

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