This is Part 2 of our two-part series about planning for uncertainty. In this blog article, I talk about short-term uncertainty. Check out the first part on long-range uncertainty here.
This is the second part of our two-part series on strategizing for uncertainty. Last time, we covered long-range uncertainty. This time, we’re going to talk about how to act in the face of near-term uncertainty, and especially about the way that mindset can translate into strategic action.
The truth is that most of the issues that we find with long-range uncertainty start out as near-term uncertainty, or worse, as near-term crises. The pandemic was a near-term uncertainty (remember those two weeks of lockdown?) that has irreversibly changed and shaped the world we live in today. Massive turnover starts with one person, and dipping sales can start with one PR scandal.
The good news is that the strongest and most sustainable businesses can handle near-term crises—even ones that they couldn’t have planned for. This is because they have the right mindset that translates to the right strategy and the right communication. Let’s break this down to help you weather the next near-term uncertainty that awaits you.
Get Real About Your Goals
Let’s rewind to March 1, 2020, and pretend I asked you about your goals. Maybe you would have told me that you wanted to be the #1 car sales company, for example. You were planning on hitting record sales and expanding your personnel. To top it off, you had an unbelievable PR campaign planned. If you were on your strategy game, you would be able to tell me what your goals were and the steps that supported each of those goals.
Fast forward to April 15, 2020. What are your goals now? Or in May? Or June? If your goals were the same as they were in March, you’d have your head buried in the sand. Right?
I make this point for two reasons. First, the most resilient companies revisit what they’re trying to accomplish in the face of major events. A car sales company that survived the pandemic might have revised its goals: I need to keep my car lines operating, keep my people employed, and keep my teams engaged. In other words, priorities had to shift in order to better serve the longer-term goal (e.g., survive the lockdown and work towards being #1 at some future point down the line).
Some companies made this mindset shift faster and more effectively than others. Making this shift doesn’t mean your ultimate purpose changes, but it does mean that what it takes to achieve that purpose might need to be reassessed.
From Mindset to Strategy
Mindset has become a bit of a buzzword these days, but for good reason. Sometimes mental blocks, that we don’t even realize we have, get in the way of establishing sound strategies that can withstand the rough-and-tumble of the economy and world today. I want to share a few of my favorite reminders for the mindset that translates into real action.
Operating in the Gray
This is a mantra of one of my favorite CEOs. I love it because it is true and it works.
Life is lived in the gray area. When we face a new quarter, a new team, or a new challenge, there are always unknowns. We don’t know how things will turn out, but we have past data, and we need to try something. We can take a small step and assess little by little.
Here’s one way to put this into action: If you know it’s time to increase brand awareness, you might take a big bet for a short time. We call this a fail-fast mentality.
Say you decide to invest 80% of your marketing budget into LinkedIn and see what happens. The trick is to make it time-bound (e.g., invest for 6 months) and be practical about what you can expect within that boundary (e.g., grow your followers by 500). The only way to move out of the gray and into technicolor is to try something and see what happens.
Set Up Choice Sets
Anyone who has ever known a toddler knows that it is a fundamental truth of human nature that we do better with choice sets rather than infinite choices. You can decide to grow 10%, increase profitability by 5%, increase your customer base, build your talent, or overhaul your brand, but you probably can’t do all of these. They might all go together, but you have to prioritize your investment priorities.
Perhaps your company hasn’t been profitable and you need to be more profitable before making other investments. You might need to look at costs and pricing before deciding to bring in other customers, or else you’d be bringing them in at a lower profit.
Look at your goals, assess them, and figure out how the pieces fit together (or hire a pro to help you get an objective look at what your most strategic moves are). Then figure out which choices to make now and which to save for later after a few more of the pieces have fallen into place. By the way, this advice works both when you’re in crisis and when it’s business-as-usual.
Just Do It
This is true when it comes to long- and near-term uncertainty. Not knowing what the future holds can lead us into what is sometimes called analysis paralysis—wanting to maximize our actions can result in us not acting at all. Or, being perfectionists and wanting to keep our options open means that we end up doing nothing and closing off all of our options. Neither of these is ideal.
At some point, you need to call in the support systems you need to act. As Bréne Brown says, we need to get vulnerable and learn to rise. The way we develop confidence is by actually doing things. Not through observing, studying, or reading another blog—we develop confidence just by doing it. And then we’ve done it, and we have the momentum to move on to the next order of business. We may not have done it the most perfect way, or the way we thought it would be done. And yet, it’s done—we can assess, gather data, and use the results to better inform our next move.
The importance of communication in a moment of crisis or uncertainty cannot be understated. Solid communication with stakeholders—employees, leaders, investors, customers, and partners—is key to finding the support you need to stay afloat. At worst, flubbing communication in a crisis can leave your customers feeling confused or even deceived.
How can you make sure you have solid communication in a crisis?
- Communication has legs: What you say can and will travel. A solid strategy or an external communications team can help you ensure that your communications reflect your purpose, your commitments, your priorities, and your plans. They can also help you ensure that you strike the right tone when discussing your knowns and your unknowns.
- Be aware of your stakeholders: Know who you’re talking to in each communication. The message you give to your stakeholders might confuse your team members. Likewise, you might communicate a different level of complexity in one forum rather than another. Be consistent while also knowing who you’re talking to. And of course, make sure everyone who needs to hear from you does—don’t forget about your business partners and community supporters.
- Moving forward: Even amidst uncertainty or crisis, let your customers know what there is to look forward to. Know your goals for the near term while keeping your eye on the prize. Stay bold and steady in your long-term purpose.
Concluding: Progress vs. Perfection
This last piece is something I work on daily. Dealing with near-term uncertainty is a game of tricking yourself (if you’re a perfectionist) into making progress. It’s always going to be imperfect, whether you’re dealing with a crisis or not. And sure, as leaders we want to make the best choices. We want data, but we live in a world where there is infinite data.
Sometimes we get caught in a trap of thinking, “if I only had one more piece of information, I’d feel so much better.” There are diminishing returns, though. You get that 80% solution, but you want more. And chasing that last 20% can keep you from making the decisions that will help you come out on top once the near-term crisis is over.
Ultimately, dealing with near-term uncertainty comes down to two pieces of advice:
- Strategize and plan ahead, as always and as much as you can.
- Get comfortable with being uncomfortable.
Also, know your own blind spots—the mindset traps you fall into as a leader that keep you from making progress. Figure out the mantras, the advisors, and the reminders you need to help you move your team forward through any crisis, any uncertainty, or any gray area.
Are you still trying to figure out how to make sure you’re rock-solid when the next challenge comes? Our team of experts can help you make sure you have a strategy that works for the near term and the long term—don’t hesitate to reach out to us for a consult.
Image by Freepik