3 Strategies For Turning Uncertainty Into a Clear Path Forward

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Though the pandemic has eased, the atmosphere of uncertainty has not and hundreds of leaders and team members are feeling the weight of it.

A significant portion of everyday workers are worried about what’s coming, and so are leaders. On a macro level, the world is loud and uncertain — economic headwinds, distrust in the media and post-Covid-19 exhaustion make a perfect cocktail for confusion about what to do next when every step feels risky.

However, by accepting and — with practice — embracing uncertainty, leaders can gain clarity, increase innovation and ensure sustainable growth for their firms. With economic uncertainty on the rise (and likely to continue), navigating uncertainty has become one of the top leadership skills of the 21st century.

These three strategies can help you turn unprecedented times into unprecedented actions.

Related: How to Harness the Power of Change in Entrepreneurship

1. Rethink change

To stand up to uncertainty, you must start reframing it as an opportunity. For leaders, rapidly multiplying unknowns increases the pressure to rebuild and reimagine their businesses. Though the journey from uncertainty to clarity is formidable, addressing challenges with a lens of opportunity leads to more and better innovation.

As a part of my research, I spoke with leaders at eyewear expert Oakley. They told me the company pivoted from making sunglasses to protective medical eyewear during the pandemic, which led to a shift in the product-development process — from serial to one operated in parallel. By focusing on customer needs and employing a flexible mindset, they took decisive action and quickly addressed urgent needs in healthcare, despite considerable constraints (in this case, time). Ongoing research suggests that an opportunity-focused mindset plus constraints helps break through uncertainty and catalyze innovation.

When you face uncertainty, focus on the opportunities and ask yourself and your teams: What’s your path to highest impact? In other words, what’s the one thing you can do that would have the greatest impact on whoever you serve? That simple question will kickstart clarity and focus.

Related: Change Is a Team Sport — So Every Player Needs to Own It. Here’s How to Get Everyone Involved.

2. Make it simple

When people ask me the most common question I get asked by leaders, I often say it’s, “How do I change without really changing?”

This isn’t true, but it is the subtext of many conversations. And it isn’t because these aren’t savvy leaders — it’s because the mechanics of cultural and organizational change are complex and nuanced. It’s simply overwhelming.

Recently, I guided a leadership session for 40 cross-industry C-suite executives. All of them agreed that they feel a sense of loneliness — and many intimated that they can’t share their own lack of clarity with their direct reports. This isolation and overwhelm makes it harder for leaders to anticipate and mitigate change. They told me they often fall back on legacy approaches, even though they know that a new way forward is needed. They’re not alone.

A focus on simplicity can help. Simplicity is about focusing on the right things rather than doing things right. It’s about focusing on the fundamentals, such as customer needs, and simple but powerful questions, such as “what do they need?” that help you get to the core of a problem and ensure you’re solving the right one. “Keep it simple” means focusing on the strongest growth opportunities and having the courage to get rid of efforts that don’t move the needle.

One Fortune 50 organization we worked with told us they walked out of a recent leadership retreat with 500 priorities. Understandably, this led to confusion and overwhelm for leaders and teams alike. We helped them course-correct by pulling out the priorities closely connected to strategic pillars — and then naming their top five. This exercise led to some discomfort and even pushback, but it also led to tremendous clarity.

You can do the same. What are your top five priorities? Are they closely connected to your core strategy? If not, start again. Once you land on your top five, communicate them to your team frequently — and more often than you think you need to (e.g. at every all-hands, at team meetings, 1:1 sessions and more). This crystal clarity will reduce overwhelm for your team and allow them to pour their talents and energy into higher-impact work.

Related: 5 Ways to Build Grit in Times of Uncertainty While Growing Your Business Faster Than Others

3. Keep it gritty

For many who have “grown up” in large, resource-rich corporate environments, there is an instinct to default to resources (e.g. budget, headcount) to solve problems. However, my research over 15 years has shown that constraints can help navigate uncertainty. How? By activating creativity and ingenuity and relying on existing resources rather than waiting for additional resources to get started.

An emphasis on gritty, small-scale experimentation helps teams stay focused and encourages taking a series of micro-actions that, in sum, have a significant impact. And those small actions allow for the fast learning and rapid shifts that an uncertain environment demands. Organic chemist Balanda Atis from L’Oreal had a hunch that people of color all over the world would value a foundation (a cosmetic applied to the skin to create a more uniform appearance) that better matches their skin tone. Products on the market at the time made skin with deeper tones appear chalky. When she shared this problem with leadership at L’Oreal, they didn’t give her a big budget or team. To their credit, they trusted her and got out of her way.

Atis went into action. She enrolled colleagues with complementary skill sets who were equally passionate about the problem. She leveraged existing resources like lab space and tagged onto pre-existing roadshows in order to get direct customer feedback. Eventually, Atis bootstrapped her way to a global bestseller for L’Oreal.

It’s natural to feel overwhelmed during times of constant change and, in turn, gravitate to our comfort zones. But uncertainty is here to stay, and when you practice reframing it as an opportunity and find success through the application of the strategies above, you’ll feel confident about how to navigate what’s next — in business and beyond.

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