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Navigating Uncertain Times

Navigating Uncertain Times

The ability to survive under uncertainty is something the entire global community is striving for because of the COVID-19 crisis. But imagine if you could thrive through uncertainty, turbulence and rapidly changing markets while navigating a crisis. It’s not only possible; it’s been done. Jim Collins and Morten Hansen’s book, Great By Choice outlines the framework for success based on their research of thousands of companies over a 30-year period. They identify 7 companies (referred to as 10Xers) that not just survived, but thrived during uncertain conditions, outpacing their competitors by more than 10X’s. Collins and Hansen’s team discovered several common distinctives that set this cohort of 10Xers apart from their peers.

These best practices can be applied to help organizations through the current crisis as Alliance Solutions Group (ASG) demonstrated in its Crisis Leadership and Decision Making course which was developed for the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA). This course has been delivered to over one thousand leaders across the United States over the past three years, and shares perspectives on crisis leadership from various sources, including the best practices identified by Collins and Hansen.

Here are four key principles exhibited by the 10Xers, enabling them to thrive through uncertainty:

  1. Fanatic discipline: entails consistency of action needed to stay the course under varying circumstances and reject pressures to conform in ways that are incompatible with their values, standards and goals. Leaders should recognize that they are running a marathon, not a sprint, then plan and act accordingly. This also entails the discipline to exercise restraint under positive circumstances. Collins and Hansen illustrate this concept with the 20-mile march. If someone is attempting to walk across the U.S., they should endeavor to accomplish 20-miles per day, no more, no less. This kind of fanatic discipline keeps a person laser focused on and achieving reasonable progress, consistently towards the goal. During this crisis, organization should continue to focus on their values, mission and goals while exercising adherence to the highest performance standards. This will enable them to progress towards their goals, even though the methods may be different.
  2. Empirical creativity: do not look to conventional wisdom, but rather look for empirical evidence. The underlying principle is empirical validation. As we navigate uncertainty, there are few textbook answers to this situation. Therefore, leaders need to be creative in their approach to re-opening organizations and continuing operations. Creativity should certainly comply with evidence-based practices, but it should be validated with empirical experience as we learn from each other. Leaders should pay attention to what is working in other businesses, industries, states, and countries. Collins and Hansen use the analogy of first, firing bullets, then when something hits, fire the canon. In other words, invest small efforts in possible solutions, figure out what works, then expand the investment. This could be the inflection point needed to come up with new and better ways of serving customers, as we are beginning to see simplification of customer transactions, ordering and delivery.
  3. Productive paranoia: maintaining hypervigilance during good and bad times. If you had a current pandemic response plan on the shelf at the beginning of the COVID-19 crisis, you were exhibiting this characteristic. 10Xers constantly evaluated “what-if” scenarios and planned for worst cases. This should be occurring within the Planning Section of the ICS. 10Xer plans and practices include:
    1. Build cash reserves and buffers
    2. Bound risks – death line/catastrophic risk, asymmetric risk, uncontrollable risk and time-based risks
    3. Zoom out, then zoom in, and remain hypervigilant to sense changing conditions and respond effectively.

    A key component of risk management is the ability to sense a change in the risk profile and respond in a timely and effective manner. The right decision at the wrong time is no better than the wrong decision at the right time; it could be worse. As stress increases during a crisis, decision makers undergo changes in mental processing which compound the decision making process. Some of the psychological effects of stress include increased risk taking, pre-maturely making a decision form limited options, and superficial analysis. Entering an uncertain situation with a plan can help mitigate the effects of the crisis by reducing stress, mental load, and need for unfamiliar decision making. Zooming out enables one to see the macro-perspective and anticipate secondary and tertiary effects (e.g., supply chain disruptions, impact of unemployment, relative risks from other hazards, etc.). It’s not too late to develop that Pandemic plan and incorporate the federal, state, and consensus health and safety practices to facilitate navigation of this evolving and uncertain crisis. Before re-opening, conduct a workshop (discussion-based exercise) to validate readiness, analyze risks and ensure the “what-if” questions are addressed to manage risk adequately.

    Connecting these three key principles

    Specific, Methodical and Consistent (SMaC Recipe): adherence to a SMaC recipe with fanatic discipline, carefully amended with empirical creativity and productive paranoia, distinguished 10Xers from their competitors. If you have an emergency plan that works, now is not the time to change it, but rather amend it when you find what works better. Its important to capture lessons learned and best practices, validate them and incorporate them where beneficial. Consider the changing external environment and how this crisis is impacting the need for change management to ensure the enduring quality of products and services, protection of the environment and health/safety of workers. This key practice underscores the importance of written procedures and training to ensure everyone understands how to perform. With a rapidly changing situation, policies and principles (e.g., preventing and controlling workplace hazards) should remain largely intact, but procedures (e.g., distancing, barriers, methods of interacting with customers) should be adapted where needed to protect health and safety when a new hazard is present. To ensure the effectiveness of these procedures, organizations must implement effective training to accompany the introduction of new procedures.

  4. Level 5 ambition: describes leaders set on a purpose greater than themselves. We have all met leaders that either made decisions with selfish motivations to make themselves look good, or that were so risk averse in decision making out of fear that they might make a mistake (asymmetric risk) and look bad. Meanwhile, their failure to make a decision results in something worse. We need leaders that understand the entire risk profile and can weigh risks from all perspectives, leaders less concerned with themselves and political consequences, and more concerned with everyone else. This is level 5 ambition, the servant leader. 10Xers were blessed with leaders with level 5 ambition. While replacing the leader of an organization may not be an option during a crisis, look out for and collaborate with those within your organization with level 5 ambition.

Navigating uncertain and turbulent crises can be daunting. If you are looking for assistance in navigating critical decisions about reopening, recovery, or the phased approach to protecting worker health and safety, ASG is here to help. We have been partnering with clients to prepare for, mitigate, respond to and recover from pandemics and other crises over the last 15 years. To learn more about how ASG could support you during this time, visit or call 757-223-7233.

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