Tuesday 24 March 2020

A Simple Framework for Managing the Unknown

Leaders struggle the most when they are faced with the unknown because they can’t rely on their experience to make decisions. They lack a tested map to guide them through new and complex situations like the one we are facing now.

Some leaders default to quick responses, ignoring the measured decision-making process they use in more familiar situations. I knew a leader who provided assurances to employees without the data to support them. He jeopardized long-term credibility for the short-term appearance of control.  When this happens, speed of action trumps pragmatic assessment, encouraging “gut feel” intuition or wishful thinking to guide their actions. Both approaches are highly risky and dangerous.

Leaders who make the best decisions adopt a process to evaluate a new situation. Each step helps build a framework for information gathering, issue identification, alternative generation and selection. There are four actions I have seen leaders use the most.

Assess the level of importance
This consideration 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 define the situation. Determining what information exists and what needs sourcing is the first step to building a fact base to use in creating and testing options. It also demonstrates that leaders are taking concrete actions to move forward.

Identify sources of expertise (internal and external) 
Leaders who know people with insights and knowledge about similar situations is the next best thing to having it themselves. Identifying these resources and speaking with them builds understanding, identifies options and pros and cons for each. Often, people outside the industry hold the best information and experience.

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 actions creates a simple framework for managing 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 and is a must-have capability. Building a simple framework around a new situation is the best preparation to address it, one that will help leaders now and in the future.