When a visiting professor told my cohort we’d wasted two years studying an MBA [previous post] he was good enough to try and leave something to fill the vacuum. The leader’s framework for decision-making headline message is “wise executives tailor their approach to fit the complexity of the circumstances they face.” Yet the Cynefin Framework™ provides much more than this.
One of the great mistakes leaders make is trying to impose certainty on uncertain situations. The result is even more uncertainty that catapults them down a slippery slope.
For example, around this time of year many organisations are setting out with a new strategy and budget. These will be built on assumptions of a future that is largely (and increasingly) unpredictable: oil prices, exchange rates, inflation, macro-economic growth, the assumption of no black swans, etc. All will look certain on the spreadsheet, nothing will be certain off it.
This is because most leaders simply don’t know any better. They see the short-comings but accept they have to plug the numbers in to complete the process. The same goes for corporate strategy; it just won’t do to stand up in front of the entire organisation and say ‘well, we’ve got no idea what’s going to happen next, but we’ve got to do something so we’re crossing our fingers, holding our thumbs, touching everything made of wood on the way to work and if something comes up hopefully we’ll be able to make something of it. In the meantime, keep doing whatever you can’.
This would be more honest (though arguably not very sound politically) but it also opens up the possibility of becoming a more resilient business. For even the most unpredictable environments have have huge areas of predictability (and vice versa) and both require leadership approaches aligned to the type of challenges faced - the central message of the Cynefin Framework.
Some things are so predicable that everyone knows what to do so accountability can be delegated accordingly. Any variation from expectations will quickly become apparent and can easily be addressed. More complicated challenges are still knowable (with the right level of expertise) but require more analysis to find an optimal solution.
Yet it’s the unpredictable that gets you in the end. When facing complex challenges - something you or those in your network haven’t faced before - there will be differing, even contradictory hypotheses about what to do next. What you need is a bit of humility: tread carefully, canvas different perspectives from within and outside of your usual networks, if an idea seems sensible then experiment - making sure you can exit if it doesn’t work out. Most of all be prudent and don’t declare ‘this is the answer’ before you’ve had a chance to test it.
In an unpredictable environment leaders must be able to distinguish the known/knowable from unknown/unknowable. Continue to manage the former in the conventional ways and tread carefully with the latter. This way, you can speak with certainty about that which you can be certain, while keeping your options open for everything else.
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"It ain't what you don't know that gets you in trouble; it's what you think you know for sure that just ain't so"
- Mark Twain