Last time out we concluded that the Brexit fog hanging over the present business landscape was clouding people’s ability to plan effectively because of the profound uncertainties it presents, confounded by the ambiguities of not having any comparable precedent to draw from.
So having analysed the nature of the problem, what can be done to overcome it? Regardless of whether there is a managed departure or no deal, whether we remain in or out of the EEC customs union, whatever goes on with the Irish backstop – what is it going to take for businesses to hold course and remain steady regardless of the turbulence around us?
A strong argument can be made for saying leaders earn their stripes more when times are tough than when riding on the coattails of success. Given an uncertain and quite possibly difficult economic outlook, it would be easy for business leaders to throw their hands up and say “oh, but what else were we supposed to do, it’s all the politicians’ fault”. But such defeatism doesn’t hold margins, satisfy shareholders, or keep people in jobs. Real leadership is about finding a way despite the challenges.
If there is one skill business leaders should look to develop above all others to help them do this, it is agility. Given the volatility of the global economy since the 2008 banking crises, we have seen this become an accepted part of business and management theory. Where once people extolled the virtues of change management, now there is talk of change agility.
And the reason for that is, in a VUCA environment, even those contingencies you have painstakingly planned to prepare a business for anticipated challenges, can suddenly be broadsided by a complete change in circumstances. When volatility, uncertainty, complexity and ambiguity are the new norms, what looked as if it might give you a competitive advantage one minute can turn out to be putting you on a path to disaster the next.
When you cannot forecast conditions or predict outcomes with any high degree of certainty, you have to be prepared to change tack abruptly in response to developing circumstances. While strategic dogma becomes a burden, the ability to react and recalibrate becomes a virtue.
Agility doesn’t mean throwing ambitions and long term strategic objectives out of the window, but it does mean thinking about how they can be achieved in different ways. Breaking things down into shorter term objectives, and equally not looking too far ahead without losing sight of the long term goals, is key. Each short term achievement you can tick off is a step forward. But if you suffer setbacks along the way as new circumstances emerge, it is not like you have to re-think the entire plan – just come up with another way to reach the next waymarker, or perhaps set a new objective more in tune with the new situation.
An essential part of being able to react quickly and efficiently when plans have to change is communication. It is one thing recognising that current approaches need to be adjusted or abandoned, but another to turn that into effective action. Leaders who understand the value of agility also understand the importance of maintaining open lines of communication across a business, of sharing intelligence and also being open to advice and ideas from all parties. Performing a 90 degree turn when you realise your business is charging headlong into a brick wall requires vigilance and teamwork.