Three secrets to planning with confidence when you’re uncertain about everything

| March 15, 2022

Ask an executive which game is closest to the way we play corporate strategy, and you could expect to hear a range of responses: Monopoly, because it’s all about making smarter investment decisions than other players. Chess, because you need to be two moves ahead of the other player.  Perhaps Twister!

During the past two years, strategy might have felt more like a frustrating game of Snakes and Ladders. It didn’t matter how carefully you planned or how clever your strategy, every roll of the die seemed to land you on a snake – with supply chain disruptions, lockdowns and constant rule changes sliding you further away from your objectives.

We talk about uncertainty being the only certainty during the COVID-19 pandemic. But the reality is, uncertainty is ever-present in our life and work. Whether it’s digital disruption, economic fluctuations or the kids’ refusal to put on their socks, we can’t control everything and we can’t always predict how things will change.

In the 18thcentury the French philosopher Voltaire wrote: “Le doute n’est pas un état bien agréable, mais l’assurance est un état ridicule.” Loosely translated, it means:

“It’s not comfortable to be unsure, but it’s absurd to be certain.”

Most of the time, particularly in strategy, we don’t always face up to how many things are out of our control.

So how do we keep moving forward and making bold decisions with confidence? Here are three keys to long-term planning in uncertainty, and one option you can take right now if you’re really stuck on where to go next.

  1. Adapt your mindset: Approach uncertainty with curiosity

Strategic thinking doesn’t start from certainty. It starts with curiosity. There’s a myth that to be considered strategic, you need to know everything: you need to be the smartest person in the room. I’ve worked with many Boards and executive teams over the years, and while there is one attribute that differentiates high-performing teams from the others, it’s not IQ. Nor is it net worth, or their level of commitment to a cause.

High-performers walk in with curiosity. They are brave enough to say they don’t know, and open-minded enough to consider other perspectives and possibilities. ‘Not knowing’ can be a powerful source of innovation, because we’re not locked into familiar pathways.

Encouraging ‘not knowing’ could be as simple as:

  • As leader, be honest with your team about something you are not certain of
  • During meeting introductions, ask everyone to state one thing they’re interested in learning from others in the room (rather than what they are expert in)
  • List knowns and unknowns as part of your conversations about the future (and be imaginative with it).
  1. Rethink risk: start with shared ambition

Bold strategic moves involve a decision to do things differently or a decision to do different things.  The more resourcing you invest in big strategic decisions, the higher the stakes. Not everything is within your control, however, so even the best-planned strategies carry some risk.

Too often we focus on risk first, rather than starting from genuine consensus about our shared long-term ambitions. With a clear long-term vision, teams can make braver decisions, because the risks can be viewed in the context of what matters most. We can understand the stakes, ameliorate the risks and be confident that what we’re about to do is worth it.

  1. Don’t do it alone: Creative collaboration powers bold ideas

We have understandably been distracted by all the things we couldn’t control over the past two years. But on the upside, how good have we become at on-the-spot creative adaptation?

Now is the perfect time to harness that collective creativity and apply it to planning bolder strategies for your long game.

We need to give ourselves and our teams the chance to wonder and the time to explore new ideas together. You don’t have to move too far out of your comfort zone to encourage a more creative approach. Try changing the way you set up your meeting room, rephrase questions to spark imaginative responses, and most importantly, give your people the space, trust and time needed to explore ideas together.

One exercise for when you’re uncertain about everything:

When you feel completely paralysed by uncertainty about the long-term, use this scenario planning exercise to help you make constructive short-term strategic decisions:

  • map out a best case and worst case scenario
  • identify hurdles and enablers to success in each scenario
  • highlight the top 3 hurdles and enablers common to both scenarios, and for each, identify and implement strategies to address them.

In times of uncertainty, we need more bold ideas, not less. The way we collaborate is key to building the confidence needed to make strategic choices and move ahead.


How does your business foster positive leadership?

Post a comment on First 5000 – Have your Say on LinkedIn today or email with your story.