Leading in uncertainty in these strange times

Leading in uncertainty in these strange times

In this article, it’s not my intention to trivialize the great effects of Covid 19 as a pandemic with all its unknowns, risks to people, our health care systems and society at large. I have simply chosen to focus on the uncertainties that exist for our customers, for us at Wenell, and for the projects we participate in.

Most of our customers normally experience uncertainty about their business and future. This uncertainty has for many been amplified during the Covid situation we now live in. However, this is not true for everyone. Some organizations have been given a clearer focus due to Covid, largely due to an increased awareness of the core essentials. This applies to everything, from the survival of the company to switching over to those activities that are now in demand as the “usual” needs disappear.

This uncertainty also applies to our area of expertise – development and innovation. Which projects should we keep and which new ones need to be initiated?  How can we shorten our projects so that we get the results that are now being urgently requested?

One way to see how uncertainty has changed and changes, is to use the Uncertainty Map.

  • Size: is how many people and actors that are involved in the project
  • Newness: is about the degree of innovation in what we work with
  • Dependencies: are how many and usually mutual “links” there are between the persons and actors performing the project work
  • Environment: consist of how quickly the outside world changes and how we are affected by this

By putting crosses on each axis and joining these up, you can quite easily “map” normal mode, current situation, and trends.

From what we have seen, many projects are now, in Covid-times, becoming smaller in size and more focused. The degree of innovation is adapted to what is demanded at the moment and largely by building on what we already have. Dependencies are increasing and uncertainties from the environment are accentuated. This is a fairly natural development and probably it’s necessary that the two upper uncertainties have to decrease when the lower ones become so much more pronounced. However, this is not entirely positive, because it can affect our long-term development and pace of innovation.

What are your impressions? What changes do you see in the projects you participate in?

Uncertainties from the environment is mostly about the decisions that customers, authorities, partners and others make because of Covid. It is the consequence of these decisions that has a major impact on us. Moreover, these decisions are very difficult to assess because each organization takes decisions that are rational for them, which means that there can be major knock-on effects for their surroundings.

What can be done to deal with uncertainties from the environment?

  • Frequent alignment of results directly with customers/users. It is more difficult now, given the current turbulence, to act via representatives or spokespersons.
  • Experiment, use “probes” to get quick feedback and keep working on what leads in a promising direction and tone down the rest
  • Develop multiple options. With this level of uncertainty, you cannot figure everything out in advance but need to keep several routes open
  • Dare to diverge from our normal processes and patterns of behavior

Dependencies includes issues, characteristics and functions that we have in common, but also dependencies between the tasks that we perform. It is now normal to have a high level of dependencies, of which many of a circular nature – what I decide affects you and that in turn affects me. Also, as projects become shorter and more focused, more of the discussion and work is done in parallel, increasing dependencies.

What can then be done to deal with dependencies?

  • Work with boundaries instead of interfaces/borders, work for an increased interest of the “in-between”, to stretch out a hand over the boundary to the other party.
  • Frequent direct communication between roles and areas to avoid the project manager/ becoming a filter. Clarify the responsibility for project staff and sub-project managers/team leaders to talk directly with each other and to other parties
  • Understand that strong dependencies give rise to increased complexity and recognize the difference between this and what is complicated – more about this in the next article

What tips do you have for dealing with greater environment uncertainty  and pronounced dependencies?

Fortunately, within most organizations there are embryonic or pre-existing development philosophies, working methods and behavioral patterns that can respond to these needs. The difference now is that the entire organization needs to understand how they work and put them to better use.

We have also seen a more forgiving attitude from the leadership for experimentation and a greater understanding that initiatives that fail may provide the basis for those that later succeed. This is essential to maintain the willingness to keep trying to find ways forward that work, even if they continue to change.

We will talk about the times we are living through now and draw experience from them, for a long time to come.

If you want to know more about managing uncertainty, read the book “Leading in uncertain and complex projects- From control to support for self-organization” by Lars Marmgren and myself.

Mats Ragnarsson Wenell Management

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