How to make plans when everything is changing

Wednesday 15 April 2020
How can you plan to be adaptable when the only constant thing right now is change?
a rollercoaster with three loops - one is green, one is red, one is blue

Coronavirus and Brexit are only the latest examples of challenges that governments, companies and managers must face in our increasingly volatile, uncertain, complex and ambiguous (VUCA) world.

Even at a micro level, managers are welcomed each morning by a growing inbox of relentless challenges that can seem impossible to meet: from rising targets and countless meetings, to expanding expectations from customers, clients and colleagues.

In these times of political, social and economic uncertainty, it can be tough for managers and leaders to plan for, or around, the “unknown unknowns” that lie ahead. However, it is possible to prepare for the unexpected challenges and obstacles that are coming.

Restate your vision and values

In his book True North, Harvard Business School senior fellow Bill George insists that authenticity counts more than ever for leaders and organisations who wish to steady the boat in stormy waters and propel it forward to success. Leaders must restate their true north, says George: what is your company’s mission and strategy and what are its values? Once clear on vision and values, refuse to be affected by external events that might distract you from your overall mission. That mission, argues North, can be the navigational compass behind which all else falls into place.

Recall your purpose

By retaining their own sense of purpose and direction, leaders and managers can regain control of the journey that lies ahead. There needs to be a clear context for daily decision making, according to The What, The Why and The How Of Purpose, a leadership guide published by CMI and written by Charlie Ebert of Judge Business School Cambridge, Dr Victoria Hurth of the University of Plymouth, and Prof Jaideep Prabhu of Judge Business School Cambridge. Its survey of leaders and leadership experts found that purpose creates both a broad direction and the creative freedom to appropriately address change. Purpose gives an enduring sense of what is driving the organisation, and therefore helps employees to make decisions more quickly than before. “There’s a link between purpose and autonomy because if you know where you are going, it’s much easier to be able to be autonomous,” said John Rosling, chief executive of consulting firm Contexis.

Practice adaptability

The decision-making mindset in this environment is moving away from slow and precise to fast and roughly right. In a world of disruption and constant change, making decisions on the go is a key leadership skill. There is no room for rigidity and old-school management techniques. Leaders and managers need multiple contingency plans while providing strong and stable leadership. That means developing your skills in situational adaptability: able to respond to changes in their environment and using it as an opportunity. Being agile is no longer enough. You can’t just respond. That’s the message of a model from the Korn Ferry Institute (KFI) called “The Self-Disruptive Leader” which urges leaders to anticipate rather than wait for disruption.

Be bold

As new – possibly exciting, possibly scary – opportunities arise, are you brave enough to take them on when it’s unsure what’s at stake or there to gain? It’s not just a cliché: When the going gets tough, the tough get going. In a VUCA world, there is little room for leaders who aren’t willing to take risks. On the contrary, the biggest mistake leaders and managers can make in uncertain times is to keep their heads down, play it safe, and do things the way they have always been done.

For more help when managing risk and change, check out the CMI Brexit Hub, or the new Covid-19 page, Leading Through Uncertainty.