Managing Uncertainty: Teachable Moments for Employees—and You

Election week posed great uncertainty as we all waited eagerly to find out who would be the next president. That uncertainty is something we have been learning to live with during the pandemic, as well—never knowing from week to week or month to month what new findings and health mandates (new required personal protective equipment? Another lockdown?) will emerge. I found an article from a couple years ago on Entrepreneur by John Rampton that offers pointers for managing uncertainty in business.

Rampton writes that we should prepare for multiple outcomes: “Instead of trying to guess what’s going to happen next, place as many small bets as you can on multiple outcomes that are within your control. This can include how your customers perceive your brand, how you motivate your employees, and where you can expand into untapped markets.” That means preparing for a pandemic that extends for almost another year, or one that draws to a close by summer 2021. Instead of cancelling events, you could postpone until the late spring or summer, or you could offer a hybrid event in which crowds in meeting rooms are avoided by assigning attendees slots of conference or meeting time that they will participate in online and slots that they will attend in person. If the pandemic is no longer a threat by that time, you can always pivot to having the meeting fully in-person, and if it’s worse than expected, you can move to make most, or all, of it online. Similarly, instead of just cancelling, you can look for outdoor venues for the late spring, summer, and fall of 2021. With masks worn, outdoor gatherings are a safer option for in-person interaction.

Multiple outcomes for a situation like the pandemic should be reviewed and discussed with staff, with employees given a chance to suggest ideas for business continuity, while also being given an opportunity to express their anxieties about the uncertainty of the company’s plans. Those candid conversations can give company leaders an idea of the anxiety customers also may be feeling, and can inform customer communications, highlighting the points that customers will need clarification and reassurance about.

Rampton also recommends recognizing an opportunity for growth in the uncertainty. When you must prepare for multiple outcomes, you also must think creatively and with a greater freshness. You can’t fall back on automatically doing things the same way you always have. You may find in your brainstorming on how to proceed with events, promotions, and sales that the alternative strategies work better than the original plans.

Your managers also have a chance to grow in their resilience. The pandemic is an ongoing exercise in business continuity. Managers are showing you how well each is equipped to handle uncertain, quickly changing situations, including how fast they adapt and how creatively they are able to think. The insights about your managers this gives you may winnow the ranks of potential future leaders. It may become obvious, based on performance during the pandemic, that some of your managers are not well suited for advancement. On the other hand, employees who are not managers and stepped up should be put on a faster track for advancement. You may find that your pool of high-potential talent has been greatly refined and improved by the time the pandemic ends.

You also have an opportunity to see which business partners were there for your company in a pinch, and which were not. For instance, there are companies you work with that may have been generous about delaying payments during the lockdown of the spring, or may have collaborated with you to find solutions that work well for your newly homebound customers. Some of your business partners may have shrugged their shoulders and told you to just make do. Are those companies you want to continue working with? Or can you do better?

Quality control and enhanced tracking of your key metrics are other actions to take during times of uncertainty, Rampton writes. “When you’re juggling both uncertainty and growth, it’s easy to lose sight of quality control. Because quality control is one of the most vital components of your business, you need to take a step back and get this under control before going any further.”… “When you’re dealing with uncertainty and growth, it’s incredibly important that you have a firm grasp of key financial numbers and other key performance indicators (KPIs), so you can make the appropriate changes quickly.”

This may be the perfect time to see how well your operations or manufacturing processes hold up under stress—a business stress test, if you will. The discoveries you make about ensuring a more reliable end product for customers will continue to be beneficial even after the pandemic is over. Similarly, this also may be an ideal time to look into metrics-tracking technology that allows you to see all of your company’s KPIs at a glance, with alerts about dips and jumps in numbers sent to managers and company executives in their e-mail or as texts, so they can’t be missed.

This is a time to reaffirm the fundamentals of good management—both of your business and people. If you take the time to work with your employees to generate new ideas and refine sup-par processes, this time of uncertainty may turn out to be a great blessing in disguise.

What has the uncertainty, and resulting flexible planning and sharpened focus, taught you about your business? How are you working with employees to ensure those lessons are applied beyond the pandemic to spur long-term growth?

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