Further Dialogues on Leading in Uncertainty: Commit & Figure It Out

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The recession is over. Unless, of course, it isn’t. Signs of growth are good, but not that good. Consumer spending is up, but employment is still weak. Markets are up today… and down tomorrow.

How are we supposed to make good business decisions and thoughtful strategic plans in this kind of an environment?

In an ongoing discussion with our clients on how to execute strategy effectively, we thought it might be worth returning to the question of how best to lead when the future remains uncertain and the facts that you’d like to have simply aren’t available.

At such times, extended analysis is often not the way to go—it takes too long and yields conclusions that can become outdated (or drawn by competitors too) by the time they’re reached… and before they can be effectively acted upon.

We instead advocate what we call the “Commit & Figure It Out” approach to strategic planning and execution: first committing to do what you know is fundamentally sound, and then figuring out how best to do it via rapid simulations, pilots or micro-executions that will help refine your understanding and inform how to proceed on a more global scale. And don’t be mistaken: this approach is not about embracing “test markets”—it’s about adopting a mindset of action vs. inaction even in the face of ambiguity, and then of deploying limited resources and low risk approaches to help find your way.

So whether you’re considering a new service launch, a different approach to channel management, or an organization restructuring, this approach can help you and your team to manage past the natural tendency towards inaction or analysis paralysis in the face of uncertainty… and ultimately advance your organization and its priorities.

Here are 5 thoughts that might help, based on what we’ve found effective and practical across organizations in a range of geographies and sectors:

Commit yourself to action. Decide where you want to go, generally speaking, and that you’re going to get there. This mindset sets you up for action. What’s more, being confidently and publicly intentional forces you to crystallize your own thinking, to spark the dialogues that often need to take place, and to generate necessary support for your ideas. Doing this also helps everyone in your organization start thinking about how best to achieve the intended end goal… including thinking about individual roles and responsibilities along the way.

Accept the inevitable ambiguity. Often, inaction is driven by fear—fear of change, fear of failure, fear of being wrong, or fear of not being 100% right. But it’s very rare that inaction will get you farther than action. You have the ability and responsibility to rise above this fear barrier. You also have the ability and responsibility to help others do so, via priorities, resources, and reassurances. It’s also critically important to assure your people that some messy exploration, iteration, and limited “failures” are okay—and likely necessary—as a part of the journey.

Be critically clear on questions. In an environment of uncertainty and scarce resources, it can be especially hard to get organizational support to take on big initiatives or address major issues… which is why people often default to conducting additional analysis. If additional analysis is really the required course of action, spend the time up-front gaining alignment on what the real uncertainties are so that the analysis is focused on answering essential questions with just the right level of depth. Once this is done, it will be much easier to build a compelling case for major action or to invest in rapid, focused in-market micro executions.

Advance with “Execution Labs.” It may be very risky to initiate a major service change with 1,000 customers, but not so much with three. With this in mind, we are strong proponents of Execution Labs: miniature pilots that provide quick, meaningful, in-market learning and real-world insights that can be scaled up and out if successful. You can test nearly everything from new leadership development approaches to service innovations to marketing messages… so we think every executive—whether you’re an HR professional, a line-level leader, or a corporate marketing executive—should have a 2-4 labs running at all times.

Recognize the successful outcomes. When your Commit & Figure It Out approach delivers, recognize it—to reinforce its results and also to give credit to the people who took action before the path was crystal clear. And make sure you don’t overlook all the good to come from your efforts. For example, we’ve observed that when our clients engage their key customers and collaborate together to Commit & Figure It Out, they often generate significant goodwill in addition to generating the info they need to take larger-scale action.

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