Putting decisions on hold? Five tips for managing uncertainty

In times of uncertainty, the default position is to put any business decisions on hold. We look at five ways of providing clarity for you and your organisation through periods of instability.

We are living through uncertain times, both politically and economically, and one reaction is to put off making any decisions. Like many other business leaders, you may be waiting for a resolution before deciding what and where to invest or whether to hire.

You can make strategic choices once you know what conditions will apply – which laws will change, whether taxes will be raised or lowered, what will happen to interest rates. You might be a business owner making a decision on a new factory location, or a retailer deciding where and when to open more shops.

Waiting for other people’s decisions to provide a direction can be paralysing. It’s hard motivating your people to try something new, or to get on with innovation when the rules of the game are up in the air. Uncertainty is one of the primary reasons why people resist change; they are relatively adaptable once they know what the situation is, whether they like it or not.

It’s not always possible to get complete clarity, and you can’t always be in control of events. However, that doesn’t mean all action must stop.

Here are five tips for managing your business under uncertainty:

  1. Provide as much certainty as you can.Even if you can’t tell people what the outcome will be, you can provide clarity about when they’ll get information. Fill in a calendar with communication dates to reduce some of the anxiety. It’s good leadership to overcome your own reluctance to say “I don’t know”, and instead engage people in discussion about the situation, letting them know when they’ll know. Emphasise meaningful rituals: have some things that the people in the business do together regularly, no matter what. It increases their ability to get on with action even if the situation isn’t yet fully resolved.
  2. Tackle maintenance and repair.Now, when some things are on hold, is a good opportunity for fix-ups and clean-ups. It’s tempting to let things deteriorate (maybe we won’t keep this office going, or live in this place any longer). But fixing things that can be improved represents productive action.
  3. Let ideas flow.Do some brainstorming. Uncertainty leads to rampant speculation anyway, so harness people’s imagination toward productive ends. Really big companies have big planning departments, undoubtedly now busy churning out alternative scenarios, but you and your business can play, too. Brainstorming about possible futures stimulates imagination about what to do under nearly any circumstance. Seeds of innovation could sprout.
  4. Show appreciation for key stakeholders.Showing appreciation to valued customers is the business equivalent of gathering loved ones to reminisce about wonderful times together. Thanking customers for their loyalty or appreciating suppliers for their contribution doesn’t involve making promises, but it does make friends. And sometimes those gestures of appreciation bear fruit, when people decide to reciprocate by increasing their purchases or sharing their best new ideas. That can pay off regardless of changing times.
  5. Use purpose and values to “think beyond.”Emphasising who you are as a team, and what you stand for, reminds people of the long-term, beyond today’s uncertainty. It helps focus on better times ahead, not just today’s troubles. It provides grounding and helps people remain connected to one another.

The clouds will eventually give way to clarity. What separates the best leaders from the rest is whether you communicate, improve, engage, invest in relationships and remain true to your principles. This can make the difference between getting stuck and emerging triumphant.

This post was adapted from one by Rosabeth Moss Kanter on the HBR blog.

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