In Change Management, People Skills

Change and uncertaintyAre you on the World Cup bandwagon, loving the agonies and ecstasies of those last-minute goals and dramatic upsets? Or do you hate the uncertainty and would rather your team scored three in the first five minutes so you could sit back and relax for the rest of the game?

Some people relish uncertainty but most don’t and, let’s face it, it isn’t going away. We live in turbulent times, not just the World Cup, of course, but the obvious example of Brexit and its continual twists and turns.

Because there is so much change and uncertainty around, in business as in our home lives, our brains naturally seek stability and what’s familiar. But these old patterns won’t work, and we need to move past this fixed mindset to build inner agility. As McKinsey has pointed out: “The problem isn’t the problem; our relationship to the problem is the problem.”

Developing inner agility

In other words, we actually have plenty of skills to help us cope with what’s thrown at us but our “fight, flee, or freeze” survival instinct kicks in when we feel overwhelmed by continual complexity at unprecedented pace. So we act before thinking (“we’ve got to decide now!”), analyse and re-analyse to prevaricate, or wash our hands of the issue by shunting it off to a committee or task force.

We need inner agility, but our brain instinctively seeks stasis. Just when visionary, empathetic and creative leadership is called for, we tumble back into conservative, rigid old habits. (And to get back to the World Cup, a team playing with the rigidity of table-footballers would soon be on the plane home.)

To spot opportunities – and threats – in an environment of constant change, we must learn to have a more comfortable and creative relationship with uncertainty. An excellent piece of advice is that in our complex era, solutions are rarely straightforward. So instead of telling your team to move from point A to point B, join them in a journey towards a general direction. Lead yourself, and your team, with purposeful vision, not just objectives.

Or, in the words of one of my favourite quotes: ‘Life isn’t about waiting for the storm to pass, it’s about learning to dance in the rain.’

Collaboration in times of uncertainty

Collaborating becomes more important In times of uncertainty, as no one person can know the answer. Effective collaboration may require an organisation to shift from a model of authority to one of partnership. Instead of people lower down the career ladder deferring to the wishes of those at more senior levels (in return for protection and reward), in come networks of autonomous teams.

These are based on an underlying mindset of partnership, of managing by agreement. The results can be empowering and bring huge benefits to the business: by introducing peer-to-peer relationships based on freedom, trust and accountability, it can tap into a goldmine of ideas, skills and strengths.

To deal with this fast-paced, uncertain world, we also need to build lifelong learning into our organisations. This is exactly what a Harvard Business School professor and a learning engineer at the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative recently called for in an open letter to CEOs. Training is no longer a matter of “one and done,” if it ever was, they say. Rapidly changing workplaces mean continuous improvement has to be the norm.

How to build in lifelong learning

They urge business leaders to insist on experimenting with new learning methods and look for approaches that are based on good evidence. But they also stress – in advice that chimes exactly with the ChangeQuest ethos and our work on the change mindset – that CEO’s need to create “a psychologically safe environment in which people feel comfortable taking the risks that come with experimentation and practice; giving and receiving candid feedback; asking questions; and acknowledging failures. Learning must be built into every aspect of the organisation.”

Whether we can’t bear to watch the triumph/tragedy of World Cup penalties, or we delight in the tension of their knife-edge uncertainty, we can all benefit from lifelong learning. That’s one thing that is certain.

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