Dealing with Uncertainty and Complexity

“Life as we know it is gone”. “ We can’t go back to the way things were.”

We keep hearing that – and, we have no idea what things will look like:  how we’re going to work together, whether we’ll be working remotely or in-person, whether and how our services will change, how we’re going to keep our team engaged. Lots of questions – and lots of uncertainty.  It’s unsettling.

Here’s what I’ve been discussing with leaders, to help them conceive of ways to help their teams work through this uncertainty.

As a leader, your role is to help your leadership team and your organization deal with uncertainty.  Nobody has the answers right now – and that is the new normal.  You may be going around in circles with employees or board members who want assurance and clarity.  Stop the circles; what’s needed is a conversation about “how are we going to tolerate the uncertainty”, and what does decision making look like in this new space.

In the model of complexity called Cynefin, there are 4 types of problems:

  1. Simple – we know how to solve that,
  2. Complicated – the experts know how to solve that and we just need to ask them,
  3. Complex – nobody has the answer and it will require experimentation, and
  4. Chaotic – there’s an urgent need to act now, and we’ll figure things out later.

The COVID pandemic is calling for a focus on #3 – complex problems.  In this space, you don’t know what will work, so you need to experiment.  You create a few safe-to-fail, short term experiments – and then check the results and determine if that was a good solution.  If it was successful, excellent, you’ll continue in that direction.  If it wasn’t, you learn from the experience and adjust your plans.  The complex space is a place for experimentation and learning.  It’s a space where you bring the people affected together and brainstorm together.  It’s a space of asking questions and listening.  It’s like untangling the knots into individual strands.

For example, your clients or customers can no longer attend your in-person programs.  Can you adapt your services to the virtual space?  If you’re doing job skills training, maybe yes, or at least partially.  For your staff, there are ways to make your virtual staff meetings more engaging, through polls, whiteboards and online collaboration tools.   If you’re working with people in a call center who get paid hourly, you could offer them support through social time – but if they talk about work, they have to be paid.  So you might need to negotiate that with senior management.

Lastly, think about how you respond to uncertainty.  Do you try to fix the problem?  Do you feel personally responsible for fixing it?  You may be used to being the ultimate problem-fixer, but how well is that serving you right now?  When your staff come to you with a problem, do they want you to fix it?  Maybe they want understanding and empathy.  Try responding with compassion as a first step.  Ask what kind of help they need.  Take a coaching approach – maybe they just need support, and maybe they have the skills to solve their own problem.  You can help them deal with the uncertainty, and ask questions to help them discover their own resources.

We are in a different space, and it will take our experimenting and learning to move forward.  Everyone needs empathy.  Ask your staff or your board to practice patience and compassion with each other, because it’s going to take a collaborative, collective effort to deal with this complexity.

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