(Part one in a three-part series)
One of my favorite “philosophers” of all time is Yogi Berra. As an All-Star baseball catcher for the New York Yankees from 1946 to 1963, he had a gift for making sense of things through paradoxical sayings. Two of my favorite “Yogi-isms” are: “It’s tough to make predictions, especially about the future,” and “When you come to a fork in the road, take it.” But the one I appreciate most in today’s environment is, “The future ain’t what it used to be.”
If we’ve learned anything as a result of the global pandemic over the past 18 months, it’s that the future won’t be like the past. Unpredictability compounded by technological advancements and constant increases in the volume and velocity of information flow are driving unprecedented levels of volatility, uncertainty, complexity, and ambiguity (VUCA) into business operating environments.
So how can business leaders position their teams for success in a VUCA environment? It’s an important question, and I believe the answer boils down three cultural focus areas: agility, adaptability, and resiliency.
We’ll focus on agility in this post. I think of agility as the ability to respond rapidly to changing circumstances. But how do you build an agile team? The U.S. military has some answers.
Based on ideas presented by Warren Bennis and Burt Nanus in their book Leaders: The Strategies for Taking Charge, the U.S. Army first popularized the acronym “VUCA” in 1987 when it was introduced into the Army War College curriculum. Ten years later, they developed a seven-step Military Decision-Making Process (MDMP) designed to help military leaders respond rapidly to changing circumstances in a dynamic operating environment.
The MDMP was built largely on General Dwight D. Eisenhower’s premise that, “Plans are worthless, but planning is everything.” As the architect of one of the most complex and successful military operations in history – the invasion of Normandy during World War II – General Eisenhower was intimately familiar with the military adage that, “No plan survives contact with the enemy” because the enemy gets a vote. But he also knew that collaborative planning is the foundation for agility, because it creates a common operating baseline in a shared information environment that enables rapid adjustments during changing circumstances in order to maintain a competitive advantage.
As a business leader, you may be asking, “But how is it possible to plan for uncertainty?” It’s a fair question. But I’ve found it’s less about what you’re planning for, and more about who you’re planning with. Collaborative planning can help your team create a common baseline from which you can quickly pivot to maintain a competitive edge when your competitors, customers, and chance inevitably cast their “votes.”
To build an agile team that can thrive in a VUCA environment, embrace the discipline of collaborative planning. In my leadership consulting work, I’ve had the privilege of sharing an adaptation of the MDMP with business leaders to help them navigate uncertainty. I recommend focusing on three key steps in the collaborative planning process: leader’s guidance, courses of action, and contingency planning.
Leader’s guidance is simply defining what your team needs to accomplish and why, while leaving the how up to them. Explaining “how” they should do what needs to be done can disempower team members, stifle creativity, and deliver sub-optimal solutions. Instead, communicate what needs to be accomplished and why, as well as what success looks like. Then step away and let your team figure out the “how.”
Next, enlist some of your team members to create two or three separate sub-teams to develop different courses of action. This will enable you to consider the problem from different perspectives and ensure you are minimizing potential blind spots or groupthink, in order to help determine the best solution for your team given the information at hand.
Finally, since change is inevitable, focus on contingency planning so your team can rapidly adjust to address risks or opportunities and stay one step ahead of the competition. Brainstorm with your team to identify high-likelihood events with high consequences that could impact your course of action, and have contingency plans ready that you can quickly pivot to when you see those events unfolding.
Many people don’t realize that before joining the Yankees, Yogi Berra served under General Eisenhower’s command as a machine gunner on a U.S. Navy landing craft during the Normandy invasion. Ironically, his mission included running messages from Omaha Beach to Utah Beach so Allied forces could adjust plans and respond rapidly to changes in the German defense. Although your business competitors aren’t shooting at you, your operating environment may be equally as VUCA. To help your team thrive, develop a culture of agility by embracing the discipline of collaborative planning through leader’s guidance, courses of action, and contingency planning.
Stay tuned for part two – “Adaptability” – in this three-part series on Leading Teams Through Uncertainty. In the meantime, take the Performance Pressure Test to find out if you are leading your team to consistently perform at a high level in the face of pressure and uncertainty. If the results are helpful to you, pass the quiz on to your friends and colleagues as well.