Friday 1 July 2016

Leading Yourself through Change: Managing the Unknown

Leaders struggle the most when they are faced with the unknown. In today's volatile business environment, this happens regularly. Most industries are being disrupted by new operating models, innovations and technologies, competitors and regulations. Large change agendas coupled with uncertain markets require leaders to address situations they have never experienced before. How they react to them influences their levels of success in leading change.

Managing the unknown is challenging because leaders can't rely on their experience to make decisions. They lack a tested map to guide them through new and complex situations.

Some leaders default to quick responses, ignoring the measured decision-making process they would use in more familiar situations. I remember one leader agreeing to expand the scope of a change initiative by 20 percent when someone asked him to do so on a global conference call – timelines and resourcing remained the same. In these cases, speed of action trumps pragmatic assessment. When this happens, most leaders either instinctively select a course of action that "feels" right or base their decision on the first data source that appears credible. Both approaches are highly risky and can lead to complications later in the change process.

Leaders who make the best decisions create a framework within which to evaluate the unknown situation. They take the time to examine the circumstances they are confronted with before identifying options and selecting the best course of action. I have observed leaders use four practical approaches to manage the unknown: 

Assess the level of importance
This action provides context to the situation by determining its relevance to organizational goals and the strategies to achieve them. How does this situation impact our ability to achieve our goals? Without answering this question, everything urgent appears to be important.

Define what information is required
Specifying what data is needed to make a decision helps frame the situation. Determining what information exists and what needs to be sourced is the first step to building a fact base upon which to create and test options. It also demonstrates that concrete actions are being taken.

Identify sources of expertise (internal and external) 
Locating people who have insights and knowledge on similar situations is the next best thing to having it yourself. Identifying these resources and speaking with them builds knowledge, identifies options and pros and cons for each. Often, the best information may be held by people outside the industry.

Consider organizational implications of different courses of action
Capabilities and culture are important considerations when assessing options. What will work well in one organization may not work well in another. Considering options through these lenses can predict how successful they will be if implemented. 

Combining these approaches creates a simple framework for assessing unknown situations. It allows leaders to quickly determine the importance of the decision; the information required for making it; sources of experience to tap into; and internal considerations that will impact each option's effectiveness. 

Managing the unknown has become 'business as usual' for most leaders. Knowing what to do when you don't know what to do has become an essential leadership capability and enabler of change. Knowing how to build a framework around a new situation is the best preparation to address it.


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