Ask an executive which game is closest to the way we play corporate strategy, and you could expect to hear a range of responses: Monopoly, because it’s all about making smarter investment decisions than other players. Chess, because you need to be two moves ahead of the other player. Perhaps Twister!
During the past two years, strategy might have felt more like a frustrating game of Snakes and Ladders. It didn’t matter how carefully you planned or how clever your strategy, every roll of the dice seemed to land you on a snake – with supply chain disruptions, lockdowns and constant rule changes sliding you further away from your objectives.
Infographic by Leaderonomics: Executing any strategy during the pandemic felt like a frustrating game of Snakes and Ladders
We talk about uncertainty being the only certainty during the COVID-19 pandemic. But the reality is, uncertainty is ever-present in our life and work. Whether it’s digital disruption, economic fluctuations or the kids’ refusal to put on their socks, we can’t control everything and we can’t always predict how things will change.
Infographic by Leaderonomics: Uncertainty is the only Certainty
In the 18th century the French philosopher Voltaire wrote: “Le doute n'est pas un état bien agréable, mais l'assurance est un état ridicule.” Loosely translated, it means:
“It’s not comfortable to be unsure, but it’s absurd to be certain.”
Most of the time, particularly in strategy, we don’t always face up to how many things are out of our control.
So how do we keep moving forward and making bold decisions with confidence? Here are three keys to long-term planning in uncertainty, and one option you can take right now if you’re really stuck on where to go next.
1. Adapt your mindset: Approach uncertainty with curiosity
Strategic thinking doesn’t start from certainty. It starts with curiosity. INSEAD’s Associate Professor Spencer Harrison, writing with research partners from a large-scale 2018 Survey Monkey project on curiosity, notes that "successful organisations are rooted in curiosity”, with employees enabled to seek and absorb new information and make new connections.
There’s a myth that to be considered strategic, you need to know everything: you need to be the smartest person in the room. I’ve worked with many Boards and executive teams over the years, and while there is one attribute that differentiates high-performing teams from the others, it’s not IQ. Nor is it net worth, or their level of commitment to a cause.
High-performers walk in with curiosity. They are brave enough to say they don’t know, and open-minded enough to consider other perspectives and possibilities. Research by Harvard Business School’s Francesca Gino found that natural curiosity demonstrated by employees was associated with better job performance, as evaluated by their direct bosses. Another of her studies found that a twice-weekly text message encouraging people to be curious increased their innovative behaviours at work.
‘Not knowing’ can be a powerful source of innovation, because we’re not locked into familiar pathways. Encouraging ‘not knowing’ could be as simple as:
· As leader, be honest with your team about something you are not certain of;
· During meeting introductions, ask everyone to state one thing they’re interested in learning from others in the room (rather than what they are expert in) ;
· List knowns and unknowns as part of your conversations about the future (and be imaginative with it).
2. Rethink risk: start with shared ambition
Bold strategic moves involve a decision to do things differently or a decision to do different things. The more resourcing you invest in big strategic decisions, the higher the stakes. Not everything is within your control, however, so even the best-planned strategies carry some risk.
Too often we focus on risk first, rather than starting from genuine consensus about our shared long-term ambitions. With a clear long-term vision, teams can make braver decisions, because the risks can be viewed in the context of what matters most. We can understand the stakes, ameliorate the risks and be confident that what we’re about to do is worth it.