In what we call regular times, many of us fall for the “Illusion of Certainty.” Nassim Nicholas Taleb’s Turkey Illusion provides the best example that comes to mind. He describes a turkey on the first day he meets his farmer. As the farmer approaches, the turkey worries the farmer will kill him. Instead, the farmer feeds him. The farmer feeds him again the next day. With each passing day, the turkey is less concerned about being killed. Each time the farmer feeds him, the turkey becomes more confident the farmer will feed him again the next day. One day the farmer kills the turkey. Based on his experience, the turkey assumed, the farmer would once again feed him—but he didn’t know about Thanksgiving.
We can think of the Turkey Illusion as one form of the “Illusion of Certainty.” For many of us, the pandemic has been our Thanksgiving. Before the arrival of COVID-19 we didn’t acknowledge that uncertainties were always present. Today we can’t ignore uncertainties. Chances are, when this is all over, we’ll return to our Turkey Illusions.
So, how then do we live in an uncertain world? What should be our strategy in times of uncertainty? When done well, strategy as a clear plan of action aligns outputs, objectives, capabilities and resources with opportunities and challenges that the environment provides. When the environment is uncertain, how then do you develop an effective strategy? First, let’s clear up a few misconceptions.
Accept that the world was always and will always be uncertain.
Most of us live as if the world is certain and our strategies reflect that. We instead need to think about strategy, as Ralph Stacey has put it, as a temporary holding position. Your strategy is a hypothesis to be tested. When the assumptions that informed your strategy change, you need to change your strategy. In times of uncertainty, it’s even more important to view strategy as an iterative process. For example, there’s a lot of conversation about life after COVID-19. When we think about what’s next, it’s essential to avoid returning to our comforting ‘Illusion of certainty”.
Let yourself be guided by your why.
When the road ahead has never been traveled, we can’t rely on maps. A compass is the best we can do. In the world of strategy, your compass is your why – your purpose. When things are uncertain, many people focus on the things they can control. This can be a great strategy. However, it is important to remind yourself and your team of your why. It has been said, “If you want to build a ship, don’t drum up the men and women to gather wood, divide the work, and give orders. Instead, teach them to yearn for the vast and endless sea.” Vision answers the question, where are you going? Mission answers the question, why you are here? In times of uncertainty, you lean into your why. You create a space that allows you and your team to bring your energy, creativity and intelligence to the problem you are solving. Let your why be your compass and get clear about mission, vision and values.
Treat strategy as execution.
We often parse our strategy and execution. These are parallel activities that inform one other. A strategy is best thought of not as a plan but as a planning process. We need an approach where we consistently return to our stated objectives and course correct as things emerge in the environment. Work hard to turn your strategy into a planning process.
Play to win.
It’s all too easy to play it safe under conditions of uncertainty, but we need to continue to play to win. Playing it safe really just means you’re not fully committed. When I played football, we described it in the context of tackles. If you go into a tackle half-committed, you’re more likely to get hurt. The same is true when achieving goals and objectives. You need to commit and play to win. Be discerning about when to play it safe.
Get out of your own way.
We often confuse reasons and excuses. Most commonly, we point to things external to us as reasons for not accomplishing our goals and objectives. In times of uncertainty, double down on self-awareness. Dig deep into your inner obstacles; those things that keep you from being your best self.
These are just a few approaches to developing strategies under conditions of uncertainty. Most of it starts with inner work that’s often referred to as the soft stuff when, in fact, it’s the hardest work. The inner work is the work that matters most in making a difference with your performance.