It's the uncertainty not the hardship that's so difficult

Wednesday 25 March 2020

Article

It's hard to find the right hyperbole to describe these extraordinary times that we find ourselves in. Today more than a quarter of the world's population are operating under lockdown with this number continuing to escalate rapidly.

But the hardship that these conditions create for so many people is easier to cope with than the uncertainty of what comes next.

Undoubtedly on the front line of this global battle, where resources are stretched beyond breaking point, the questions are not about the next week but the next few hours and how to handle the next influx or prioritisation of scarce medical supplies.

But for many businesses the space between the immediate crisis response (which most have faced into rapidly and effectively) and how to plan for the next few months looks terrifyingly uncertain. 

For leaders in these times tackling this uncertainty and the paralysing effect it can have is a critical challenge. Of course there is no single solution - because there remain many imponderables of how this pandemic will play out (how long will it last, will it recur, when will lockdown be released, etc). 

There are ways however to mitigate some of the worst of the uncertainty.

  1. Sideline the big question: when we realise that the actions we need to take are independent of the answer to the big questions. A great example here from a client in retail who concluded that a) all stores were going to be closed b) we have no idea for how long so the action is simple. Do everything possible to rig the business to survive as long as possible in a mothballed state. Energy spent worrying about predicting how long it is going to last is wasted - move on!
  2. Refocus on the higher purpose: reorientating the business around actions that can be taken for the greater good. For a hotel chain forced into closure the question rapidly becomes not how long will this last or do we have the cash to survive, but how can we use our vacant rooms to save precious lives or to support those on the frontline of this battle? The uncertainty has not gone away but the whole energy of the organisation is redirected in a hugely galvanising way.
  3. Take comfort in solidarity: while the fate of your business may be in doubt the pandemic is a near unique situation where huge numbers of business face into identical externally driven effects. In this situation, all around are suffering similar challenges and while it may be unclear that there is a route out - this mass suffering implies government support and intervention must cushion the blow. It's impossible to conceive entire sectors being left to fail - so solidarity and support amongst peers is a key antidote to uncertainty too.

These are clearly a small selection of the many potential responses that businesses can consider to tackle this issue of uncertainty. Whichever approach you take it's critical to recognise that this is a far bigger driver of stress for us all than facing into hard actions that need to be taken.

Find out more about James George, Partner

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