“Just tell me what to do!” Communicating your certainty about uncertainty

We can easily understand that those who look to us for leadership want us to offer clarity, just as we ourselves seek it from our seniors. In years gone by practices such as ‘management by objectives’ were intended to help leaders describe outcomes in concrete language. Similarly we’ve expected that the leaders in the organisation will create strategy and communicate it clearly to the followers, who will then implement it. Such views still permeate much leadership thinking and literature, and in many situations they still offer value. And yet for many today these ideas feel like a relic of a bygone age; one that was more stable, simpler, slower-moving, with far fewer interconnections.

Writing brilliantly about how to lead in a VUCA (volatile, uncertain, complex and ambiguous) world, Jennifer Garvey-Berger and Keith Johnstone offer guidance for “communicating your certainty about uncertainty”. They helpfully draw on a case study in which the director of a cash-strapped Family and Children’s Services department must lead her team to reduce incidents of harm coming to children in the community. The breadth and complexity of the situation defies simple explanations or solutions. Much as her team would like her to provide a clear plan of action, (who wouldn’t?), this would be futile as she cannot possibly have the answers.

“Instead of tightening the reins and controlling what others do, leaders in this space need to loosen up and enable others to find a helpful path through the unknown. This means that not just the outcome of the strategy, but the process of building ideas together during complexity becomes a key shared resource.” (p. 149)

So instead of offering answers, leadership in complex times requires that we are clear about both the direction we’re headed, and the questions that we collectively must address. Rather than, “this is how we will reach our destination”, we need to communicate “this is what we need to understand more clearly …. in order to know how to get to our destination”. More than ever, leaders need to be challenging their people with the questions that will nurture new understanding; encouraging what Garvey-Berger and Johnstone call ‘safe-to-fail’ experiments that will stimulate new learning, while providing the necessary boundaries or ‘guide-rails’ to maintain focus and a sense of safety.

Such an approach also needs to be adopted in the context of performance management. Objective-setting should be used to measure progress in learning and understanding, and not simply used to describe outcomes – over which most of us have limited control anyway! For example I’m astonished at how many school teachers are only ever targeted on outcomes (“a certain number of children achieving a certain grade”), rather than on their own learning and experimentation with the effectiveness of different teaching strategies. Schools are one place we might expect an appetite for learning!

Perhaps it’s natural that we tend to resist the discomfort of this, of being asked to be part of the process of creating strategy, not simply executing it; of engaging with complexity and questions, rather than looking to others for answers. Indeed there is evidence that the brain actively avoids anything that may feel unclear, that we tend to block out any data we find confusing.

And yet most importantly, competitive advantage, whether in children’s services, education or in business, depends increasingly on the ability of leaders to help others to learn and experiment rather than simply execute. The challenge for leaders is to be able to resist the pressure of closing down on options too quickly, to maintain an approach characterised by curiosity, to clarify the questions that need to be addressed, to pay attention to the data, and then to help the organisation respond in the light of what is discovered.

Garvey-Berger, J and Johnstone, K (2015): Simple Habits for Complex Times; Stanford University Press
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