Clarity in Unclear Times

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As a knowledge-hungry freshman, I sat in the front row of my Economics class.  Eager to learn, I copiously scribbled notes as Professor Ballesteros shared some Confucian wisdom with the class.  Confucius said, “When you know a thing, to hold that you know it and when you do not know a thing, to allow that you do not know it – This is knowledge”.  I recall thinking: “What?  What does this have to do with economics?”

The value of that lesson has appreciated in significance for me over the past 40 years.  One thing of which I am presently certain is that everything is still very uncertain.  Too many times over the past several weeks, I have listened to debates in various leadership meetings and wrote myself notes, “What do I know?  How can I provide clarity in unclear times?”

Under normal circumstances, decision-making can be difficult.  Multiple variables, points of view, interdependencies, human psyche, personal biases (recognized and unrecognized), lack of data, too much data, plus the unintended consequences of actions can make some decisions overwhelming.  Most choices we encounter are not “bet the company” type decisions so we often make them based upon intuition and past experiences.  The best way to improve decision making muscle and make better choices is through experience.  The best way to gain that experience is through the learning associated with making bad decisions.

What makes decision-making even more challenging in periods of broad uncertainty is that one begins to know what one doesn’t know.  Does the current data and experience represent a trend, an emerging pattern, a new level of normal, an over-reaction or an under reaction?  For those of us who appreciate predictability and a managed environment, these are extremely trying times. So, how does one go about planning and creating clarity at a time when the appropriateness of our decisions and actions cannot rely on guidance from past experiences?

Start with your values:  Start with making a list of your company’s values.  At the very core of the company, what do you want to preserve?  During scenario planning and decision-making, take time to go back to the values list.  Constantly and consistently ask, “What do our values tell us we should do in this moment?”

When news of the pandemic first began to impact Andesa, we first looked to our purpose and our values to guide us.  Our responses were focused on the safety and security of our employees and their families while simultaneously considering how we best meet the needs and expectations of our clients.

Observe: Go slow to go fast.

If it is safe to do so, slow the pace of the world around you.  It is important to gather as much information and data as possible as well as different points of view. The wisdom of the many is always greater than the wisdom of the one – take the time to collaborate.  If the team can afford the time to go deeper into the issue or scenario, the resultant decision will often be more effective.  However, the big caution is to guard against analysis paralysis.  Decisions need to be made with the best information available at that time.  Action toward a common direction provides a level of comfort in moments of uncertainty.

Much of Andesa’s initial foray into COVID-19 response was necessity based and focused on the tactical execution of pivoting to remote work.  But, as the day to day environment settled in, the questions and decisions took on a greater importance with potentially substantial impact and ramifications.

Interpret:  Take the time to separate the facts from opinions.

It is important to recognize that our knowledge is always incomplete.  In times of uncertainty, it often feels as if the level of incompleteness is more acute.  Thus,  it is imperative to continuously ask the question, “Is this fact or opinion?”.  However, there are times when decisions must be made based upon opinions; but that awareness itself allows the decision maker to continually disprove or validate opinion over the course of time.  When the facts change or clarify an opinion – adjust the strategy.  With added perspective and information, increased certainty and confidence return to the decision-making process.

In the early days of the pandemic, much of the information coming to Andesa’s leadership team from a variety of sources was opinion and hypothesis.  As the team worked through the observe, interpret and intervention process, some of the opinions and hypotheses held true while others fell by the wayside and our plans, directions and interventions changed accordingly.

Intervene (1): Assess and plan for multiple scenarios.

My colleague, Larry Resnick, is an above average, competitive poker player who amuses me with his tales of tournament wins and losses.  “Strategic” is his number one strength.  The Gallup Clifton Strengths Finder describes people who possess the Strategic strength as follows:  “People especially talented in this theme consider the world through a series of contingencies, contemplating quickly and constantly about the “what if” scenarios of a day, an event, an interaction, or a lifetime.”  It is easy to understand how Larry’s Strategic talent in the evaluation of multiple scenarios, risks and outcomes enables him to effectively consider his poker alternatives, reach a decision and place his bet accordingly.  Similar scenarios play out in business, just not with cards. That strategic, poker-player mindset is a great analogy for planning in uncertain times.

As the initial COVID news impacted the organization, Andesa’s senior leadership team considered a wide array of possible outcomes and focused on two likely scenarios.  One team worked on scenario A interventions and another on scenario B.  We continue to monitor the underlying forecasts and assumptions under both models and adjust our thinking,  strategy and actions as warranted by the circumstances.

Intervene (2): Increase transparent communication.

During this period of uncertainty, many decisions must incorporate a level of flexibility incumbent with scenario planning.  Unfortunately, this tends to provide little clarity in times when individuals are seeking more solid answers.  It is incumbent upon leadership to increase communication and transparency during these moments.  Take time to explain the why; what is known and unknown, the process by which decisions are being made.  Seek feedback from the team.  Quick pulse surveys or questions for leadership are a good way to ensure communication is hitting the mark.

As we initiated our COVID-19 response, Andesa’s Pandemic Response Team pledged a minimum of a weekly communication.  The team conducted small sample size, weekly pulse surveys and just recently concluded a company-wide input survey.

In addition, our Communications Team set up a series of virtual video sessions (CEO Chat, Company Overview Meeting, State of the Company, etc.) to engage with our employee-owners.

As leaders, we will always have the responsibility to address the largest issues facing our organizations. The larger the issue, the greater the uncertainty.  To provide clarity in uncertain times, and to do so over the long-term, here are some suggested guidelines:

  • Adhere to your values – Make a list of your company’s values and make decisions according to those values.
  • Acknowledge what you know and what you don’t know – the latter being far greater than the former.
  • Observe – Collaborate – get the right perspectives in the room.
  • Interpret – Separate fact from opinion.  Examine from multiple points of view.
  • Intervene – Consider multiple scenarios and act upon the most likely outcome. Constantly re-examine and modify your strategy as facts and circumstances warrant.
  • Intervene (2) – Communicate frequently with authenticity.

I would love to hear from you about your decision-making process during this uncertain time.  What has worked?  What has not worked?  What are some lessons learned?



One Response

  1. Smolinsky says:

    Excellent advice. I expect you and Andesa are navigating the current situation well.

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