One key thing stands out whenever a company is struggling: they’re unwilling — or unable — to plan beyond the most obvious and easily predictable scenarios.

In contrast, smart companies are going beyond the obvious.  They are not only improving their foresight, allowing them to identify potential major events, they are creating an organisation that can adapt to just about any crisis.  Its not that they want to be different; they have a burning need to be different.

Among these smart companies, I have noticed several key traits that set them apart:

Being open to challenge

The traditional view is that admitting gaps in knowledge is a leadership weakness, but in my view it is a considerable strength.

When I was a Royal Marine Lieutenant Colonel, I was responsible for coordinating the strategy to get all of the UK’s combat troops and their equipment out of Afghanistan.  I had to pull together the programme on which bases to close, when, and how to hand them over to our Afghan partners. I had to chair the debate on how to get the life-protecting equipment out, without increasing the level of personal risk for our people left on the ground.  All of this across several thousand miles and through/over/around multiple countries.

To have tried to do this on my own would have been ludicrous.  Even with the brilliant team I had around me, we knew full well that try as we may, we wouldn’t be able to think of everything.  One of the key tools we used to open ourselves up to challenge was wargaming.  This gave all stakeholders a mandate to challenge the plan to its limits, open up issues and identify where we had missed things.

Smart companies are using the business wargames concept to challenge their own plans and look beyond the immediate. As described so well by Eric J. McNulty in his article for Strategy + Business, leadership in volatile and uncertain environment:

calls for questions — lots of them. Penetrating questions that ferret out nuance. Challenging questions that stimulate differing views and debate. Open-ended questions that fuel imagination. Analytical questions that distinguish what you think from what you know. [This] will help you see patterns and make more accurate predictions. As a leader, you must encourage open, direct feedback as well as ideas that challenge the status quo.”

Embracing unpredictability.

The immediate response of leaders facing volatile environments is often to draw lines in the sand and impose boundaries on the problem, reducing it to easily digestible chunks.  As human beings we long for familiarity, so a structured and organised approach to the problem is comforting.  But unpredictable environments morph and evolve; they do not conform to structure or to boundaries.  The outcome is to leave the Leader looking out of their depth, as they attempt to maintain control on an unravelling situation.

Instead, as described by Paul Kinsinger, leaders in a volatile environment need a mindset in which they embrace unpredictability, thriving on the open playing field it represents.  It is in such an environment that opportunities in innovation, new markets, collaborations and new products exist. This outward looking, positive style of leadership reassures people across the organisation that its leaders are moving with the problem and tapping into its opportunities. The sense of confidence it generates is infectious.

When I decided to leave the military, I had three broad choices.  I could go and work for a large corporate, trading the comfort of one big organisation for another.  I could find a smaller company that was growing well and jump on to enjoy a more risky ride. The third option was to really go for it and set up my own company.  I had no business experience and no ready-made pool of clients, so option three seemed crazy, but I backed myself and went for it anyway.  Its been the best choice I ever made; the ride has been incredible.  The uncertainty and unpredictability has been invigorating; it makes me feel more alive every day.

Accepting that the plan will not always work

The phrase ‘no plan survives contact with reality’ remains as valid today as it has ever been.  In Graham Kenny’s article ‘Strategic plans are less important than strategic planning’, he argues the case for a plan being more of a guide than an absolute. He also states that leaders should “assume the plan is a work in progress. A strategic plan is not a set-and-forget instrument. It’s a living and breathing document”.

If leaders in a volatile environment refuse to shift away from a single, unalterable version of a strategy, not only will they find themselves failing to achieve its objectives, but losing the confidence and loyalty of the staff around them.

From a human perspective, mistakes are inevitable, but even more so in a fast-paced environment.  Often, this leads to a rebuke and chastisement, but this only leads to risk-aversion and decision avoidance.  If however, mistakes are treated as learning opportunities, not only is a positive culture generated, but the organisation becomes far more agile.

Did the plan for getting UK troops out of Afghanistan work flawlessly and remain unaltered from the day we finished the first version?  Of course not.  It had to be constantly adapted and amended it as situations changed in the conflict, export agreements between countries were cancelled then re-initiated or political imperatives altered. Everyone was eventually brought home, and the necessary equipment recovered, but not in the same way as we had originally thought. The best part though?  None of the senior leadership turned around and complained that the plan hadn’t been accurate at the outset.  There were just complements on a job well done.

Communicating and collaborating

In a volatile environment, it is vital that leaders create a sense of collaboration across their organisation.  To do this, they need to be open and engaging with everyone, building a sense of rapport and trust. Honesty and humility are two key traits required in this approach, building a sense of community.  This allows leaders, staff and their peers to support one another, identify potential ‘stove pipe’ issues and prevent resource fratricide.

The military are particularly skilled at ensuring this collaborative approach to planning is valued and practised at all levels.  They are also keen on precise communication.  In his article for HBR, Colonel Eric G. Kail said:

“Buzz words, catch phrases, and one-liners fall flat in a volatile environment. A great role model is Winston Churchill. A fantastic communicator, he once said “the small words are best.” Anything over three syllables didn’t make his cut and neither did any statement that was not direct. Save the pithy slogans for your marketing campaign”.

The team ethos I was inculcated with in the military remains with me to this day.  The biggest lesson I pass on to the companies I now consult with is the need to work together.  To get away from departmental silos and stop seeing the organisation as an engine in which everyone is a ‘cog’ that does their specific job.  Allowing people to interact, to learn from each other, support one another and build mutual trust is exactly what smart companies are doing.

The good news is that the above traits are not some holy grail, out of reach to most.  They are simple building blocks that virtually any organisation could develop. You just have to have the burning need to make it happen.

I am deeply grateful for the advice of Jeff Haden in the editing of this post.  If you would like to know more about how Quirk Solutions Ltd helps organisations deal with uncertainty and volatility, please feel free to get in touch via our website or in a comment on this post.