We always heard about how fast our world was changing. Leaders needed to be able to make decisions quickly and within rapidly changing situations. Leading through uncertainty was just part of the job description. I think only a few people understood what this meant during the COVID-19 pandemic. Violent changes were happening daily all over the world.
I’m writing this in early 2021, and we are now heading into recovery. Vaccines are being deployed, testing is getting better, and things are slowly coming back to normal. The question for executives and leaders is: are you ready to lead through another wave of uncertainty?
We Are Fantastic at Dealing with Change Every Day
Let me bust a myth that we aren’t good at dealing with change. We deal with change every day. We run into traffic, our favorite lunch place is closed for the day, and problems come up at work. We can easily adjust our plans and deal with all these changes.
I don’t mean that we may enjoy all these changes, but we can deal with them. If we couldn’t cope, then we would lie in bed all day. Even then, we would eventually get discomfort from lying down.
The real issue is that uncertainty is uncomfortable. Studies show that people don’t mind waiting for the subway when they have an idea of how long it will take. They can gladly wait 10 – 15 minutes but will get frustrated waiting a few minutes without any indications. Adding expected arrival times tends to improve customer satisfaction with public transport.
In our companies, we need to learn how to convert uncertainty into certainty. We can’t be certain of success, but we need certainty in a plan or dealing with things. Once we better understand what we need to do, we can start taking action.
I recently went shopping for a new iPad at the Apple Store. You now need appointments to walk into the app store. You can’t just stroll in and check out the devices. At first, the appointment requirement was an annoyance.
However, during my appointment, the shopping experience was fantastic. Someone worked with me one-on-one to choose the right model, and I was in and out within 10 minutes. It’s not about knowing the outcome but having a process for dealing with it.
You Need a Flashlight and a Map
Think about a cave for a second. It is dark, humid and you can’t see more than a few feet ahead of you. You know there’s an exit somewhere, but you’re not sure how far it is or what path to follow. It would be nice to know the exit direction, but instead, you have a map and a flashlight.
That is all you need! As you lead through uncertainty, think about how your team adjusts to last-minute changes and what kind of map you’re using. The best companies can quickly create maps for new situations, and better yet, they know when they abandon the map and when to follow it.
The new CEO of UPS, Carol Tome, came in with a simple idea: saying no. UPS should say no to the wrong customers, wrong product lines, and wrong ideas. UPS stock has risen over the last year, and they are well-positioned to grow beyond the pandemic.
I don’t think Ms. Tome knew exactly what might happen under this strategy, but she gave her team a map and flashlight. She trusted that her team could adjust midway through the walk and continue moving towards the exit.
Using Data for Leading Through Uncertainty
As always, let me give a brief primer on how data could help here. I was recently talking to a group of executives, and they were telling me how their 2020 data was “useless.” It had incredible lows or highs, and they didn’t think it was actually representative of an “average” year.
I told them that we need to move away from “average” years. Companies were surprised in 2020, but budgets and strategies should reflect these changes in the future. If another pandemic hits in the future and a company isn’t ready, what did you learn?
The data from 2020 is actually quite useful for understanding how to deal with extremely low demand or high demand. Tourism resorts will now understand how they can survive without months of businesses, while digital businesses will understand how to cope with a surge of consumer spending.
Data can help you cut through the uncertainty. Your past data can provide indicators of the road ahead, while your present data can alert you of bumps and wrong turns. Finally, your future data could help you deal with unexpected issues.
Uncertainty is all around us. We crave answers, but sometimes we have a map and a flashlight. Data can be a fantastic tool for leading through uncertainty. Help your team understand your data and use it regularly. It might just keep everyone sane in times of distress.