How can uncertainty both drive and hinder your organisation’s transformation?
The state of uncertainty is by no means foreign to us all after the past year – the pandemic has upturned anything we previously thought of as ‘normal’ and has had an impact of nearly all areas of our lives. We are all accustomed to the uncertainty being a bad thing: not knowing the outcome of a situation can be destabilising and can affect everything from productivity to mental health. When we have sufficient levels of certainty, our brains can predict next steps and we are able to operate more efficiently. Without it, panic sets in and decision making becomes more erratic. However, there are some positives to be gained from uncertainty. Researchers have found that these situations can drive creativity and innovation in individuals. So how to you overcome the negatives, and make the most of the positives?
We are currently working our way through the most uncertain of times. Indeed, it has been posited that the level of uncertainty brought on by the Covid-19 pandemic far outstrips the impact of other recent crises. The information instability of the past year has meant it is almost impossible to plan even day-to-day, as scientific updates and governmental restrictions and legislation have changed on a close to daily basis. Added to this, there seems to be no end in sight, at least not for the foreseeable. The duration of the pandemic has massively exceeded expectations, and consequently our global state of uncertainty has been significantly extended.
It is well documented that extended periods of uncertainty lead to exhaustion – both on an organisational and personal level. This is largely due to the stress an uncertain outcome can cause; studies have shown that certainty of a negative outcome creates significantly less stress than an uncertain result. Constant levels of stress can take a toll on mental health of your individuals, not to mention the operational effects for an organisation, from generally lower productivity and efficiency to poor performance levels.
When it comes to traditional operating models, how can uncertainty undermine these? Planning is often annual, with very few changes or adaptations throughout the year. The pandemic has served to highlight the failures with this static, forward-looking model, and the lack of agility and flexibility it provides. We have also become more aware of what needs to be done, as opposed to what has always been done in a workplace. With the sudden move to remote work, the aim for many organisations was maintaining business as usual to the best of our abilities, which opened up opportunities for innovation and new thinking about systems and processes.
The pandemic is a very useful example of uncertainty, but this can come from any area, be it global financial crises, or more localised issues such as security breaches, increased competition, or regulatory issues. So, how do you manage uncertainty and minimise the impact it could have on your people and business?
Minimise ‘crisis mode’
Devise an early warning system, whether that is red flags raised within systems and software, or a more manual check on various metrics by individuals. This will allow companies to act fast and adapt their operating model or approach, meaning that much less time is spent in the uncertain no-man’s land of ‘crisis stations’. Review these metrics frequently to make sure you are aware of any potential challenges as early as possible.
Plan, plan, plan
Better to have several options at your fingertips that are never used, than to find yourself without the faintest idea of how to act in a crisis. Business continuity is crucial, so setting up various options around flexibility of workforce, internal processes, and revenue generation will be crucial to helping your organisation adapt to whatever is around the corner.
Regular strategy reviews
Just as you would not expect to implement a system and never have to update it, your strategy should not be an inert beast. Rather, it should evolve as the organisation develops. Implement regular strategy review meetings to ensure that everyone is fully abreast of the strategic options and offer the change to make suggestions, and tweak and adapt. Continuous feedback is an important tool and one that should be employed to the full when building an agile and adaptable strategy.
Build a positive change mindset
Getting your teams to see change as a positive, and having a culture of continuous evolution and innovation can be an asset in times of uncertainty. Attitudes towards change vary, but often it is a seen as a negative because of the uncertainty and instability it can engender within a business. Reframing those attitudes to change within your organisation will help bolster confidence and ensure that the impact of uncertain situations is lessened.
But when is uncertainty a good thing? White a state of total uncertainty has major drawbacks, a degree of opacity of outcome can help drive innovation and originality. Researchers have found that having too much certainty can make us lazy: when we can too easily predict next steps or outcomes, humans shift to operating on autopilot, and breaking out of that cycle can be difficult. This means that innovation is easily quashed, and it becomes increasingly difficult to think outside our basic routines. Conversely, adding in a degree of uncertainty can stimulate the hippocampus area of the bran (involved with emotions, learning, and memory formation), which helps unlock creativity and problem-solving abilities.
How then, can we look to incorporate the ‘good’ uncertainties into our lives and organisations without throwing off the status quo? This can be particularly challenging as we are all working remotely and find ourselves confined in many ways to small-scale routines. For leaders this could look very different depending on the situation. Perhaps consider encouraging your teams to step outside their comfort zones on a regular basis, be it by public speaking, for example, or attending conferences (even virtually). Internal feedback sessions can also help with encouraging a culture that promotes idea generation and discussion and help drive creativity. Process is important, but it is equally vital to incorporate a degree of freedom for your employees to think outside the box and come up with better and more efficient ways to serve your customers and support business function.
We can also think about this on an individual basis, especially when working from home. Do not allow yourself to drop too much into a routine, even if that means taking breaks at different times, or changing up how your divide your working day. Think as well about personal development – are there any webinars or courses that would help you grow and develop? These may not be totally in line with your role or career path, however you would be surprised at how many methodologies are applicable across industries and sectors, even when they don’t seem immediately relevant.
When it comes to transformation in particular, flexibility is very important. The transformation process is usually a long one, and always more expansive than first envisaged. Until you get into the weeds and start understanding the current state and desired outcomes of a project, it can be difficult to define exactly what the process will encompass. Having a very fixed and certain idea of how this will go, and very specific, static outcomes, can hinder the process. Organisations that embrace the (inevitable) element of the unknown throughout the process, and react to situations in an agile way, are the ones that get the most from a change initiative.