Leadership in uncertain times: Finding your way through ambiguity

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26 March 2020
Written by Speak First Linked-in icon

Leadership in uncertain times

The visceral sound of a Formula 1 engine sets pulses racing, energising and engulfing the senses as a race gets under way and throughout the various challenges bend by bend vying for positions throughout the field. As the race unfolds, data streams flow between cars and factories as the race team – led by you, the race team leader – take decisions almost as fast as the cars are moving. Your car is in first position when the data indicates a tyre change may be best in the next two laps due to potential rain – this will make the difference to the race outcome. Incredibly, the data systems all crash! The information you had was at best ambiguous, so what would you base your decisions on from that moment forward?

For the moment, set aside the romantic notion that F1 is a sport or entertainment - it's business, and big business at that, with many of the technologies forged in engineering. Communications (car to factory and back again) and the onboard technology end up as part of our daily lives, from the vehicle on your drive through to medical telemetry. The data that’s collected and streamed in nanoseconds leads to engines being autotuned and suspension being set second by second.

It's the same for organisations today. Everything needs to be quicker, faster, more connected: increasingly agile. As things quicken, and the pace of business and changes accelerates keeping ahead of the competition becomes ever more important and significantly more difficult. The need for organisational agility has never been greater.

From insight to realisation, it’s not the business or organisation that makes change happen - but its people, their striving to understand, improve and, simply put, make things better – and that’s where agility makes the difference between finishing first or potentially last.


Leaders and data

The accepted rule for leadership focuses on delivery of results, but there are many elements to the ‘equation’ in order to reach the desired outcome. To gain a deeper perspective, let’s revisit the world of Formula 1.

For the moment, consider the proposition of leading an F1 team on the world stage. Whilst huge financial capital and investment play a considerable part in success, it's the team and driver that actually deliver the ambition for the manufacturer with their tenacity, motivation and skill set. In fact, the team, to some extent, become an extension of the meticulously designed, well-crafted and finely tuned engineering of the F1 car that laps the track.

From the lead up to, during and after the race there are millions and millions of bits of data streamed from the vehicle, designed to support decisions that are focused on delivering one clear vision – winning. But all of that information has to be processed effectively, and it still comes down to decisions taken by the leader (team manager) regarding strategy and deploying the right tactical approach at the right time, based on the information to hand. F1 team leaders need to be able to assimilate complex data, adapt and be decisive in the direction they give, with a wrong decision costing a race or a season and potentially millions.

If that sounds familiar- it should. Organisations invest heavily in resources – whether it’s technology, data or human capital – the aim is invariably to win, and preferably win big. To do so requires todays leaders to be able to deal with complex data, adapt to situations that arise and keep the team moving in the right direction. But what if there was a ‘bug’ in the system? How would you react as a leader if faced with taking decisions when the stream of data has frozen, or was at best ambiguous?


When the data stream fails

Vince Lombardi observed “Perfection is a fallacy that leads to over planning, procrastination and failure to ship; agile is about focusing on delivering the best thing possible in a set time period.” That means, to some extent, leaders have to become comfortable with, and more welcoming of, risk.

Risk is a part of the day to day business of an organisation. As a leader you are at the forefront of decision taking. Where you lead, you need others to follow. You simply cannot put matters on hold until you have all the information to hand all the time That means having the courage to make difficult decisions with limited detail.

Decision paralysis is unacceptable as a leader. It doesn’t help you, the organisation or your teams. So here are a few things to ponder:

1. Nothing will get better on its own – therefore something is invariably better than nothing and if it's not the perfect outcome it provides learning – think Thomas Edison.

2. Doing is better than thinking – remove the inertia and get active. Better yet, let your team breathe and get them more active in the decision process.

3. Filter the known from the unknowns – it's easy to clutter the pathway forward with non-facts.

4. Consider the sum of the parts and engage with others, not only your team. Gather their collective intelligences, don’t always work with the hard facts and consider what others suspect based on their expertise.

5. Allow for creativity – encourage more risk taking. Make it safe for you and those around you to make mistakes. Think of them as small controlled experiments, they could be the catalyst for the next ‘brilliant’ idea or solution.

Try any one of the above and, when that works, try another.

When the way forward is unclear and time is of the essence, if your team are holding their breath while you consider the options, think about those vital moments in an F1 race and take a risk. It's likely you will improve the rate of positive outcomes and stay ahead of the competition.


Navigating Ambiguity is one of our new learning solutions in 2020.

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