Planning is an essential aspect of leadership. But in today’s volatile business environments change is not only accelerated but non-linear – what will happen next is unpredictable, and past successful strategies will be no preparation for the future. So how can leaders ready themselves and their organisations to react to whatever comes next? Humans crave certainty, and automatically look for patterns that try to make sense of the world around them. In evolutionary terms this has served us well – creating forecasts by extrapolating past events helped early farmers to plant seeds and harvest at the right time for example. But basing business planning on what was delivered last year plus ten per cent is no longer effective. Planning is important, but rigid adherence to plans as sources of certainty in changing times quickly confines leaders in prisons of their own making. Instead of trying to keep uncertainty at bay by locking themselves away, today’s leaders need to embrace it. Three shifts in leadership can help.
Use the language of possibility
The first is to change the language around uncertainty and planning. The human mind is an interpretation engine, it constantly looks for patterns and structure to make sense of new situations. We are always already listening for the clues that help us to interpret events in our own context. Leaders especially are more often told (and hear) why things happened rather than the facts of what actually happened. The tendency is to quickly collapse commentary about what happened into what really happened. To prepare for uncertain futures leaders need to consciously step away from the language of interpretation to focus on the facts of what is happening. By doing so they will turn away from the past as a source of certainty to embrace the reality of the present. But the language of action can become another prison – forcing leaders to play the game in front of them better and faster to remain successful. It leads to the tyranny of stretch targets that call for more with less every year in the slavish pursuit of plans that no longer reflect new circumstances. Breaking free requires adopting the language of possibility.
Recognise yourself as the decisive element
Recognising that you, as a leader, are the decisive element in the future you want to create is the next critical step in breaking out of the prison of plans. Strong leadership has historically been associated with having a good plan and refusing to be diverted from it. Having an unwavering commitment to a possible future is crucial, but that’s very different from stubbornly pursuing a single route to the desired destination. Success today requires leaders who scan the environment for new paths, directions and approaches whilst still remaining fully committed to the ultimate destination. This is the language of possibility – coaching teams to try new things and fully standing with them as they do so. Taking decisions and actions from the perspective of already living in the possible future you’ve declared as a leader -rather than cracking the whip for progress against plan will create freedom for the whole organisation to move forward.
Finally, leaders must embrace exploration. Certainty is a crutch that prevents breakthrough performance. It is also, in most cases, an illusion. As outlined at the start of this blog, we create interpretations to make sense of new situations – and certainties are also just interpretations of past events. Just because something worked last time does not mean it will work now or the next time. To prepare for uncertainty leaders must exercise their experimentation muscles. Experiments are what people use when they don’t know what will happen. By their nature they build experience and understanding. Many will fail but combined with an unwavering commitment to a possible future, each can help the organisation make progress.
Leaders must demonstrate a willingness, indeed an excitement, in exploring any solution, any idea, any path towards their declared commitment. A good model for this type of exploratory leadership can be found in modern software development. Traditional linear, plan-based development that followed specified steps to hit milestones and defined specifications have been left standing by newer ‘agile’ techniques. Developers, working as small teams in parallel, deliver many short ‘sprints’ to explore, develop and test different approaches which are then combined to move projects forward rapidly. Successful leaders will adopt a similar approach. Always acting from possibility, experimenting to see what ‘might work’ rather than being restricted to a plan based on what used to work.
A willingness to believe in planning, but not plans, will free leaders from self-imposed prisons that restrict their ability to act and react in uncertain times. It requires bravery to step away from apparent certainty, and insight to understand that certainty is built on context and interpretation rather than reality. If leaders can throw off these shackles and embrace exploration and experimentation, then they will be well equipped to prepare for, and benefit from, the unexpected and thrive rather than just survive in volatile times.
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