• Chris Bevan

Leading through Ambiguity

Drawing parallels between our current global challenge of COVID-19 and those of transforming a business.

Like a lot of us, I have been following the daily press conference from Downing Street. I have also been listening intently to the Today Program and had different News Channels live while working in my office. We are experiencing surreal times.

A point that struck me this morning was the way that interviewers and reporters at the press conferences are applying “operational” thinking, norms and behaviours at a time that is so far from “operational” it is not true.

We have been told that “we are experiencing unprecedented times.” “we are following the science,” “the virus and its impact is changing daily,” etc, etc.

In “following the science,” we see the two senior scientific advisors flanking the Prime Minister and providing evidence of what the science is telling them, quite well in my opinion. Unfortunately, governments and scientists are not in control of the spread of the virus and, as it evolves the science is trying to catch up with it.

This is causing extreme levels of ambiguity. Our brains are not designed to handle ambiguity, they are prediction machines, they take short cuts based on experience and nudge us to expect certain information. Because of this, our anxiety levels increase and cognitive dissonance – the uneasy feeling we get when we have conflicting ideas, when the information we get does not match the information we are expecting – increases.

We are all craving context. The reporters at the daily press conference, interviewers on the Today Program can’t cope with ambiguity or the abstract. “Give us precision,” “give us context!”

In my opinion the Political leaders had a plan. This plan was based on the scientific evidence and advice at the beginning of this crisis. Our Prime Minister gave precise (or close to it) answers at the beginning. Why? Because we were very close to the operational norms and behaviours. He was using collective knowledge and experience gained from over a hundred years of how the operation has been run.

This is the way we answer these types of questions, this is how we incrementally modify the standard narrative.

We were in the world of incremental change to existing structures and thinking. Focus on improved hygiene, keep calm and wash your hands and use tissues, limit the information. Things we can all do as individuals without interdependence on anyone else. This is not a criticism, it is the standard way in which our commerce, industry and governance environments have evolved.

We then moved into the world of big change. Self-isolation, avoid gatherings, consider working from home, reduce travel if you can etc. Changes to our daily routine.

During these two phases the narrative didn’t change much. There was a context provided which was based on past experience and behaviours. The majority of questions from press and interviewers were answered with a higher level of certainty. Our politicians new the answers.

Within what seemed like a blink of an eye we tipped into a transformation. Our lives have transformed into lock down, must work from home, do not travel, hospitality industry closing down, our social structures are on hold and the impact on individuals is catastrophic. Anxiety levels are understandably off the charts.

Ambiguity and the abstract are the norm and reporters and interviewers are craving context and the specific.

Our politicians are not in a psychologically safe place. They are not allowed to say, “I don’t know yet.” That isn’t an answer that we allow them to use. Even when the scientific advisor adds “….and this is what we are doing to find out.” The retort is “when will you know, two days, 5 days, next week?”

We are living in an ambiguous state and we crave context.

There are so many parallels in what is described above and many corporations who are in different stages of transformation. Leading through a transformation is a very different to leading the day-to-day operation of the company. Leading an operation is complex to start with. As the company moves through a transformation, especially the pre-design phase, this complexity increases, ambiguity pervades and with it, for example:

  • Judgement becomes more important than known data

  • The variables to be juggled become more diverse and the relationships between the variables become more complex

  • The environment becomes more abstract and people have to deal with increased uncertainty

  • The time between taking decisions and knowing the effectiveness increases

This requires a different approach to leadership. Resilience, collaboration, influencing, coaching, horizontal rather than vertical thinking etc., is required.

Unfortunately, the current example described in this article this is not a piece of make believe to illustrate a point. It is real and unbearable for a lot of people around the world. As we come out of this, and I am sure we will, there will be a need for companies to reflect on the tactical moves they have taken to enable some form of continuity as well as safeguarding their workforce becoming the norm. This will require a transformation of their enterprise operating model to support this. This will not be easy and some companies will be left behind.

The two massive shocks UK plc have endured Brexit and COVID-19 must tell the corporate world that the old ways may not see us through another one. It is not enough to just change the way we do things we have to change the way we think and behave as well.

Let’s start planning for this transformation now.

Perhaps an antidote to self-isolation?

Chris Bevan is a co-founder of Outvie Consulting who support organisations through complex transformations. He is also a NED and Advisor

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