COVID-19: How to manage through uncertainty

Good management, we have been taught, is about effective planning. You might run a business or a not-for-profit organisation or a department of a larger organisation – whatever it is, chances are you value and embrace planning as a way of getting things done. Staying on track. Achieving a goal.

But then along comes the coronavirus, and as it turns out, it cares nothing for your plans.

This pandemic is challenging the assumption underlying planning as a management tool – that we are in control of all the elements which make up our lives and our work. Sudden, unpredictable events show us that control – our ability to plan and shape our own lives – can be taken from us abruptly.

Many creative industries businesses have experienced this in the last few weeks. Those trading in events have seen their pipeline of work run dry instantly, because of decisions taken by others. Those trading with other businesses are finding work disappearing because their customers have taken it off the table. Revenue is disappearing, staff are having to be stood down – and all because of factors outside our control.

Frankly, it’s terrifying. And for those who have had to have difficult conversations with staff, customers and family, it can be heartbreaking too.

So where to from here?

I think the first step to making this situation less terrifying is to be specific about what is happening here. To articulate it is to confront it, at least as a first step. Here’s my attempt at expressing what is happening:

  • Events outside our control are impacting our work and our lives. What we do and don’t do on a daily basis is being dictated to us. This loss of control is challenging.
  • It leaves us scrambling to react; by mitigation, reinvention or by doing whatever needs to be done to keep the doors open. We’re forced to make difficult decisions, quickly and imperfectly.
  • We don’t know how long we’ll have to operate like this.

Given this environment, it’s clear we can’t continue to manage business in the way we used to two months ago. In fact, we can’t even continue to manage business as we have in the last two weeks; we have to move from crisis management to management through an extended period of uncertainty.

Here are some ideas on how to navigate your way through this fog:

  • Reinforce your values. Your goals and strategies may be discarded but the values you and your teams espouse endure. They should be your touchpoints now – your reminders of what’s important and how you treat those around you.
  • Gather a team around you. Your senior staff. Or your trusted advisers. There’s no need to face this alone. Get their input on the questions keeping you up at night.
  • Shorten your planning timeframes. Perhaps you used to have a 3-year plan? Think now about what to do this month. Then next month. Or even week to week. It’s OK to plan on a rolling basis. Embrace it.
  • Permit imperfection. The times call for speedy, not perfect solutions. You’re going to get some things wrong. The people around you will get some things wrong. There’s no way to be 100% right in an operating environment which is inherently uncertain.
  • Permit overcaution. Sometimes we can delay taking action because we think we’re worrying too much. Perhaps less now than when COVID-19 started to emerge, but still. Don’t worry about taking too many precautions and certainly don’t worry about how it may be perceived.
  • Manage your time as efficiently as possible. The urgent/important matrix is a simple tool that can help here. Put aside some of the distractions, and don’t be afraid to say to people, “this has to wait.”
  • Sketch out possible future scenarios. This can be confronting, but ultimately worthwhile. What steps will you take if your revenue falls by 25%, 50%, and 75%? What actions will you take if your or one of your family contract COVID-19? Yes, we’re back to planning again, but this time with a view to anticipating how this particular situation is going to pan out, and pre-empting how we will react.
  • Try not to take decisions that rule out future potential options. Some people do this naturally. They’re the people who never like to leave a door completely shut, because one day they may want to walk through it again. It’s a good strategy for these times. Leave as many options open as possible. Exist permanently in the “maybe”.
  • Reinvent your product/service and its mode of delivery. Necessity is proving to be the mother of invention. In the creative industries, we’ve seen plenty of examples of products being re-imagined for digital delivery, like the Melbourne Symphony Orchestra streaming their concerts and the Biennale of Sydney moving online. Restaurants turn to takeaway, gin makers producing hand sanitiser… this could turn out to be the era when business model innovation is truly and usefully adopted.
  • Keep focused on the long-term. Specifically, the return to normal conditions. Amongst all the uncertainty about COVID-19, a consistent message is that the disruption it causes is temporary. So imagine that point where business returns to some semblance of normality and work to it.

The irony here is before COVID-19, we thought we were dealing with certainty, but we obviously weren’t. So in fact, we have always managed through uncertainty, it’s just now we are much more aware of it. From here on in, we’ll be more attuned to the risks of disruption to our work. That uncomfortable feeling of not knowing what each day will bring? It’ll stick with us, long after this over.

But for now: step through the fog slowly and deliberately, keeping your options open as you do. One day, one week, one month at a time.