Get ready for the unexpected

Sep 04 2014 by Graham Scrivener Print This Article

Change, especially when it is unexpected, commonly triggers anxiety, distraction and loss of motivation. In an organisation undergoing change, that’s a real but often ignored problem, because the more uncertain and anxious someone feels, the poorer their performance.

Whilst we can't stop the change, ambiguity and complexity which swirls around our organisations and our daily lives, managers can learn to experience change differently and equip their team with the tools to do the same. Exceptional leaders thrive in adversity because they build self-assured and agile teams that have the strength to remain focused on getting the right things done even when thrown into the unexpected.

A good example of leading through change and uncertainty is the 2013 America's Cup, the world’s premier yacht racing competition. In the final, Oracle Team USA, led by the experienced Australian, James Spithill, faced Emirates Team New Zealand, captained by Dean Barker.

Initially, things went very badly for the American team. At one point, they trailed New Zealand 8-1 in the best-of-17 series. Yet in one of the greatest comeback wins in sporting history, Spithill turned the series on its head to beat New Zealand by an agonising 44 seconds in the final leg, winning the series 9-8.

Such a remarkable turnaround was only possible because of an ability to change and adapt, to surf the wave rather than try to control it. Spithill and Oracle Team USA’s owner, billionaire Larry Ellison, fired their tactician mid-series, redeveloped their race strategy, redefined their team members’ roles and made major modifications to their boat. They were able to adapt their techniques to the circumstances and found ways to do things differently, transforming their performance levels to pull off a comeback which nobody except them really believed was possible.

So what are the keys to dealing with unpredictable? Here are three simple techniques.

1: Be Purposeful

Teach the team to be purposeful about what needs to be done when a curve ball suddenly throws them off course by prioritising actions based on their 'value to effort' ratio. In other words how much energy, attention and time is required to do the job compared to the contribution it will make to the business.

By organising actions this way, teams can quickly establish where to make trade-offs should the unexpected happen. This agility approach ensures time is used wisely and the team remains focused and confident in the face of adversity.

2: Adjust your Attitude to Change

A global research organisation we worked with had a client that decided it wanted to stop doing studies in local markets to focus on larger global markets. This decision was a major blow to a particular country manager as it meant the loss of a large account to a centralised, global team.

However, by using the COST (control, ownership, scope and time) tool he was able to look at the situation in a more positive light.

  • What Control did he have in the situation? Whilst he no longer managed the account he and his team could still influence the operation of global studies being undertaken in his region.
  • How he could take Ownership and improve things by offering his team's local expertise to the global team.
  • After considering the Scope of the impact the country manager realised that the situation wasn't going to affect his teams' direct revenue as much as he first thought.
  • Finally, he considered the issue in terms of Time. He knew the team would need to replace the revenue from the loss account but in the long run they could benefit from the profit from the local part of the global study.

3: Reframing

Reframing is a technique which managers can start to apply immediately. It can help people to shift their perception of a situation to one that is more objective and neutral. Firstly, acknowledge the challenges that are being faced and empathise with those involved. Be absolutely honest in every respect. Next, explore the possible outcomes, both positive and negative, and help people view the situation from various lenses of perspective. This way they can reframe the situation and are in a better position to see the situation in a more positive yet realistic way.

About The Author

Graham Scrivener
Graham Scrivener

Graham Scrivener, Managing Director of Forum EMEA, a UK-based provider of leadership development and sales performance training.