Leading Through Uncertainty: Strategy in Turmoil

When 2019 was coming to a close, the World Health Organization’s term – COVID-19, or coronavirus disease 2019 – had not yet come into existence. By March 11th, the WHO labeled the newly discovered virus a pandemic. In the first seventy-one days of the new year, the world was forced to shift from business as usual to navigating a new order of priorities, many of which are the antithesis of business as usual.

Global health is the top priority. Making sure people avoid exposure to COVID-19 or recover quickly is the number one focus for the public and private sector organizations. But what comes next?

For many business leaders, today’s experience feels analogous to operating at the base level of Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs. At the beginning of the year, they were focused on self-actualization priorities; today – food, water, shelter and safety, metaphorically speaking.

One survey of leaders published in January 2020 showed the top five priorities for their companies were Leadership Development, Facilitating Employee Engagement, Emphasizing Accountability, Improving Emotional Intelligence and Leading Across Generations. All important; all higher-order priorities. The conversation today has taken a dramatic turn, with the focus on a different set of priorities – keeping the organizations safe, delivering service virtually, managing the workforce remotely, navigating a temporary suspension of operations and keeping the doors open.

With the turmoil causing descension down the business hierarchy of needs, how can leaders take a strategic approach to harvesting new ideas to position their organizations better for tomorrow?

  • Adaptive Disruption to Capture Transformational Opportunities – Business leaders often think of disruption being initiated by a competitor or new entrant to their market. The COVID-19 event proves there are other sources of disruption. Leaders can use this unfortunate exogenous disruptor like they would an industry challenger to examine their business models and reimagine their operating paradigms.

    Consider the university model. Many universities took an extended Spring Break, then returned to classes through an online-only delivery model for the remainder of the school year. On-line learning has been growing organically, but with the right strategizing right now, this event can catapult creative universities further, faster than their current trajectory would enable.

Where are the opportunities in your business to initiate strategic disruption?

  • Defining the Next New Normal – Systemic shocks often lead to a new normal modus operandi. Some organizations wait until sometime after the shockwaves end to interpret and act upon the new normal. An alternate approach is to begin defining a new normal for your business now. That may mean identifying temporary tactics you’ve implemented to help get through the current operating environment that can be made permanent.

    For instance, many organizations have reduced activities to business-critical operations only. That means identifying activities, processes, products or services that can be eliminated. In many cases, by asking questions about activities which have outlived their usefulness, leaders can free-up capacity to apply more impactfully in the emerging new normal.

What steps can you take now to define your organization’s next new normal?

  • Reimagining Leading Virtual Employees – Businesses have grown their remote workforce for years, yet a lagging aspect of this model has been leader efficacy. COVID-19-induced work-from-home programs present leaders with an opportunity to define what it takes to effectively lead, influence, listen, manage and coach a (more) remote work force, and create greater sense of virtual team cohesion.
    What steps can you take to raise your virtual leader acumen now?

Uncertainty can fuel discomfort, and discomfort is prevalent at this moment. Taking every opportunity to communicate with team members is one of the best tools for reducing discomfort. Three categories of communication are necessary to help your team move beyond their discomfort:

  • COVID-19-event specific messaging – Status updates, impact to your business, employees, customers, communities.
  • Current business-as-usual communications – The current environment feels different for all of us. It’s on the leader to take an extraordinary experience and make daily activities seem as ordinary as possible. That requires more frequent, proactive and coordinated communications from all levels of management.
  • Future state communications – For business that take the COVID-19 event as an opportunity to embark upon a needed change management endeavor, defining the future state picture and telling the story about how the organization brings that picture to life is an impactful way to build support, focus energies and make meaningful strides.

One of the best ways to lead through uncertainty is to shine a light on the future by bringing ideas and actions into focus for attention today. Looking ahead helps your team see beyond the challenges of today and think more productively about how to

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