COVID-19  •  Companies news

Before we can surf the wave, we need to learn how to swim.

Marie-Agathe de Place writes lines below to address the uncertainty we will face in the medium to long term.

Embrace uncertainty and build collective buoyancy

For the last 20 years, we have heard management and strategy experts telling us about uncertainty. They have warned us: we live in a world of disruption, a world full of volatility, uncertainty, complexity, and ambiguity. We have made nice slides and probably some inspiring speeches out of it. Big deal. This is no longer about conceptualizing uncertainty. Now we can feel it, in our business lives but also in our social and private lives.

Disclaimer: The lines below aim to address the uncertainty we will face in the medium to long term. They do not claim delivering any radical solution to individuals, companies or industries currently facing acute survival crisis.

Will my business survive the crisis? Will my parents get sick? Will my kids be able to join the university next fall? Will we be able to go on holiday this summer? When will it be safe to resume a social life? Will the virus come back next year? When will we find a vaccine? Will I find toilet paper in the supermarket next week? Whoa, let’s cool down. What is happening here? We feel uncertainty in our guts, and we look for answers, we crave answers. In other words, we acknowledge uncertainty and we want to fight it by all means: reading hundreds of articles, listening to experts, looking at mathematical models, asking our friends, expecting science to bring irrefutable facts and government to bring indisputable solutions.

Get buoyant

What if we had another option than combating uncertainty with all our rage and survival instinct? What if we choose to embrace uncertainty? Ok, I know I may lose half of my audience at that point. Non-sense, idealistic view, pitiful lack of pragmatism, irresponsible behaviour. Before leaving, please just answer this question: do you remember when you learn how to swim?

What is the first step in swimming? Buoyancy. You simply cannot swim if you cannot stay afloat. And to win buoyancy you need to do one thing very simple but so difficult to achieve: relax. Trust water, your body density, Archimede, or whoever you want. Believe you will not sink, and relax.

In front of uncertainty, we are like beginner surfers. We are told to surf the wave of the new world, but when we look at the sea, unpredictable, wild, and elusive, we are scared to death. This is human nature.

However, if we get familiar with the sea of uncertainty, if we let it come around us, if we relax and embrace it, we might very well find ourselves uncertainty buoyant. And then and only then, we can start to swim and, for the most talented, surf the wave.

The anxiety of losing control

Well, that’s a nice story but we still do not get any answers to our overwhelming list of questions. So what? Do we really need to answer all these questions? We certainly want to, but do we need to? Which decisive actions could we take if we had the answers? Not many. Because we simply do not have control on these things. As a manager, as an entrepreneur, as a mum or a dad, we have learned and trained hard to be in control. Because this is what responsible adults do: gain control and keep control. And suddenly, we are not in control any longer. We do not decide who we can meet, where we can work, not even how long and how far we can walk your dog in we live in France. We have no other choice that giving up that control, and we hang on to the last bit of control we think – at least we hope - we still have; keep our body healthy.

We feel we are losing control, and this makes us anxious. Indeed, we are losing control, but maybe not as much as we think. We may be restricted in our movements, but we have more control on how we organize our day and sometimes more time to do new things. We may struggle to lead and coordinate efficiently a scattered team, but we are building strong trust-based relationships. Our industry is a real chaos, but we still have the control on choosing the strategic directions of our company to mitigate the losses and seize opportunities.

We still have control, but on different things and in different ways.

Our world is changing, so must our leadership

This is it. No choice but to transform the way we drive ourselves and our teams.

1.      Accept – Acknowledge that not everything in under our control. Renounce to some of our concerns and questions. This is not a failure, just wisdom.

2.      Trust – Believe that we can be buoyant in the waters of uncertainty. Demonstrate calm and determination. And trust others to help us.

3.      Focus - Let’s stop investing our time, energy and worries in things that are out of our control. Let’s focus on what is still under our control and on the best options to move forward.

“There is only one way to happiness and that is to cease worrying about things which are beyond the power or our will” Epictetus, stoic philosopher, 2000 years ago

Build a team to swim through uncertainty

Ok, what’s next? Once we are buoyant, we still need to learn how to swim. And for this, we need to coordinate all different parts of our body. This is where team diversity and collaboration get into the picture.

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Everyone has his/her own way to cope with loss of control. When facing uncertainty, we apply various strategies.

Let's synthetise into four personas:

The survivor warrior – His strategy in uncertainty: guerrilla fighting. He is capable to switch his behaviour, he becomes highly perceptive of small signals, he can smell risk from far. He takes fast decisions and acts with determination and precision. He relies on his instinct and his courage. His weakness: he may be prone to impulsive reaction and even panic.

The planning master – His strategy in uncertainty: regain control through data and logic. He is cool-blooded and tries his best to understand the (too) fast changing environment, through as many parameters as he can find. He excels at planning, building scenarios and explaining deviations. He relies on data, facts, and his brain power. His weakness: he may be overwhelmed by the number of variables. His engine may overheat, producing new scenarios and reforecasts like a hamster in his wheel.

The cool philosopher – His strategy in uncertainty: wait peacefully for the storm to be over. He is fully relaxed and gets inspired by ancient and modern wisdom, aligned with the stoicism values: prudence, justice, fortitude, and temperance. He feels freed from the social and professional conventions that govern our lives. Relieved from timelines, plans and forecasts, he finally gets the time to do all sorts of things he wanted to do for so long, from sorting out old family pictures to reading Marcus-Aurelius’ Meditations. His weakness: he may get disconnected from immediate down-to-earth matters.

The enthusiast innovator – His strategy in uncertainty: turn disruption into opportunity. He is creative and forward thinking. He believes in Schumpeter’s Creative Destruction theory and is somehow excited by what is standing behind the corner. He is already exploring which could be the opportunities for society and business that will emerge from the current chaos. Much easier to think out the box when the box walls are falling apart. His weakness: he may fail to see current risks while focusing on the long term.

Each of us probably embeds a mix of these personas, in various proportion. We may also have gone through different phases since the beginning of the crisis. For instance, I currently feel mostly as a mix of a cool philosopher and an enthusiast innovator.

Each persona can bring an essential skill to achieve swimming through uncertainty.

The warrior brings decision, the master brings efficiency, the philosopher purpose, and the innovator progress. This is all we need. This is all our companies and communities need.

However, we cannot play all roles simultaneously. Thus, we need to look for these capabilities within people around us, our partner, our friends, our team. Once again, the keys to success are diversity, humble listening and collaboration.

Count on others to mitigate your weaknesses.

I am a cool philosopher but lucky enough I am living with a planning master – and a real black-belt one - who helps me keep my feet on the ground. In the same way, the philosopher will help the warrior to keep cool and focused. The innovator will help the planning master to look up and find a North Star. The warrior will protect the innovator from short term risks.

An old good recipe but with new ingredients

Now that we have all necessary ingredients, we can apply the old good teamwork recipe:

1.      Respect – a good team story always starts with a good deal of respect. We need to acknowledge that we have different ways to react to the current crisis. We worry for different things, at different level. A crisis environment is reinforcing our natural tendency to think we are right and adopting the best possible attitude. We try to convince others because we find they too strict or too complaisant, too optimistic or too pessimistic, too relaxed or too stressed. We could probably make better use of our time.

2.      Identify talent – a good leader should be able to spot the key strength of each team member. The uncertainty coping skills of your team members will probably come as new to you, they may even be new to them. People can behave in the rough sea of uncertainty quite differently than they do when they navigate through their usual calm waters.

3.      Leverage strengths – use your philosophers to set priorities, use your warriors to identify risks and push for decision, use your masters to plan and set guidelines, use your innovators to prepare for the future.

4.      Get into action – The usual highway is currently under maintenance. So do not stay stuck in your car honking frantically, hoping that this would make the highway reopen sooner. Move forward, explore new territories, and build new ways.

Make uncertainty your ally

We cannot see what the future is made of. Fair enough. We feel blind folded and this is not a pleasant sensation. But remember, when we turn off the lights, our bedroom does not fill up with monsters. Being in the dark does not necessary means being under threat. It can be a great environment for meditation, analytic thinking, enhanced acuity, creativity.

We have got the necessary resources within ourself and around us to tame this novel and most probably long-lasting uncertainty. Keep calm and swim.

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