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Riding the VUCA wave: Ability to explore is key to business survival

According to the Center for Creative Leadership, the ability to deal with complex challenges and turn them into something positive is now essential. CEOs have to recalibrate and course-correct far more often than they did in the past, often responding to things that are outside their control.

The key to business survival and thriving in this environment is the ability to explore an issue from different perspectives. By learning to see a situation from a variety of angles, it’s possible to become more creative, clear and focused. Here’s how:

Improve visibility

Business leaders hate operating without radar. Most businesses can cope with most situations, as long as it doesn’t hit them out of left field. So you need something that takes you to ‘the known’. One of the best exercises for improving what you know is scenario planning. Companies gather relevant individuals together to consider a range of ‘what ifs’, from the possible to the extreme. Talking through how the organisation would respond to each scenario can be invaluable.

Creating an inner cabinet made up of the best minds in the business is another way of giving you back some visibility. Cast your net wide: remember, these individuals can come from every level of the organisation.

Use the technology

Stay informed using real-time data: it is unemotional, and will give you the cold, hard facts. Keep an eye on your market by using social media platforms – or assign others to be your ‘horizon watchers’.

Remove yourself from the fray

It’s easy to lose perspective in a VUCA environment. It can feel almost as if you’re in a war-like situation, so it’s particularly important to deploy resources efficiently, prioritising what is urgent and what can wait. In crises, businesses tend to think their business model is totally outdated or finished, when very often it is not broken.

Take yourself out of the situation mentally by talking to an outsider. Bring in someone dispassionate such as a professional facilitator who can look at what’s going on without emotion.

Opportunities for peer group sharing are also valuable. Every month at the Academy for Chief Executives, something will have knocked someone sideways. Academy groups can give that CEO reassurance and guidance that is anonymous, experienced and hugely useful.

I’d also encourage you to get out of the office. Take a walk in the park or go away for a weekend. Your environment can cloud your thinking, so take yourself to a different physical location to calm your head.

Get creative about creativity

It’s a time for reinvention and breaking away — innovation and disruption are more important than ever. But you may not feel particularly creative, so encourage people less close to a problem to solve it, hothousing solutions away from the fray. If you have an IT systems problem, the techs may be too close to it. Others outside the department may come back with a simple solution.

In addition, difficult situations allow great talent to come through. They can be highly motivational, so allow people to play their part. There’s often a huge sense of pride among those who’ve come through crises; the experience makes everyone feel bigger.

Don’t hunker down

This may mean behaving counter-intuitively, holding your nerve. Take price wars: no-one ever wins yet this is frequently a knee-jerk response to economic volatility. If a competitor starts to discount heavily, consider putting your prices up. This says: ‘we’re confident; we’re better’. You may win more market share.

The year we acquired London’s Earls Court and Olympia, 25 per cent of our business went east to the newly-opened ExCel in Docklands. But we were completely calm because we’d planned for such a possibility and set about upgrading our offers and our customer service. We gained strength from the whole experience.

Share your plan – selectively

It’s important not to spook the horses, which means you need a genuine plan that is visible and true and that also evolves. Communication to the wider organisation should be in bite-sized chunks. Information can change so rapidly that it’s better to drip-feed regular updates via team leaders. They can then ensure messages trickle down to managers and employees in smaller group discussions.

Capture your learning

I’d advise you to keep a log. Often, situations re-occur, and it can be useful to look back at what you did the last time. Some of the measures you put in place during an emergency may hold their value during a more steady state, too.

The Royal Free Hospital in London found this following the 7/7 terrorist attacks. When staff were ordered to clear as many beds as possible for the wounded, they managed to empty around a third of them in just an hour. Post-crisis, the hospital used the experience to improve its operational efficiency, and some of the practices instituted during the 7/7 emergency have now become the norm.

Tackle resistance

If you’re asking people to think differently, you’re likely to face some resistance. Deep down, we like structure and continuity. But people will change if they are fearful or they know they must, so you have to identify the ‘burning platform’. Explain where you moving to and why, then take it in small steps. Explain your vision, and remember: no-one will move if they don’t know the ultimate destination. If you ask someone to move from A to B, they won’t take another step if they don’t know where Z is.

Andrew Morris is CEO of The Academy for Chief Executives.

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