3 Proven Ways Successful Leaders Handle the Unexpected

Building an organization that is able to respond to “the unexpected” is one of the most challenging roles for leaders to play in today’s environment. 

Market dynamics are significantly different now than in the past where there was greater continuity and relatively less unpredictability.

Today it is commonplace to see multiple new technologies shot into markets simultaneously; each ripping into market flow with massive disruption.

In addition, customers have more power today than ever before. They are greater in magnitude and better informed of their choices than people were even 5 years ago—thanks to the internet and the hyper connected world it has created.

New businesses are formed in staggering numbers today, dominated by the opportunities made available through Internet applications. The internet of things is spawning new business ideas at a staggering rate, bringing with it competitive intensity and rivalries never seen before.

These dynamics, characterized by randomness and unpredictability define the chaos facing today’s leader.

If the leaders can’t find their way through the barrage of unexpected events that slam their organization, they will fail and their organizations will die.

Here are 3 ways for leaders to make sure they are prepared when the unexpected is poised to take their organization down.

1. The ability to adapt requires a Plan B mentality. It’s all very well to create a theoretically brilliant strategy; it’s quite another to execute it and achieve the results originally intended. There are too many forces at play during the execution phase of the plan to prevent it from succeeding.

A surprising new technology is introduced, a new competitor springs up, market pricing suddenly is reduced, government policy changes and customer demand changes without warning.

The only effective coping mechanism in the face of this dynamic is to have contingency plans on the shelf ready to go on a moment’s notice.
These “what if” plans are just as important – no, MORE important – than the base plan because they prepare the organization for a body blow; they make responding to the unexpected an integral part of the culture.

2. The ability to adapt fast requires simplicity. A real time response to the unexpected cannot occur if the organization is bound up with a complex bureaucracy.

Complex rules, systems and decision making processes slow response time when “hitting the window” is crucial.  As preparation for the unexpected, leaders must simplify organizational infrastructure in all respects to make it easy to quickly replace the base plan with the appropriate contingency.

3. The ability to adapt requires a culture of nimbleness, flexibility, love of change and the willingness to make a counter move from the current direction quickly.

In order for this to happen, leaders must have the undying trust of employees.

If there is no trust, people will likely be unprepared to shift direction, believing that when leadership changes their mind it’s a sign of uncertainty and incompetence as opposed to a strategic move.

Successful leaders know the world will not likely “unfold as it should”; that unforeseen events will be the forces that shape the strategic outcome of their organization.

And they treat contingency planning as a critical priority because they know that if they do not effectively adapt to the unexpected, their future survival is at risk.

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How To Lead Change By Looking At The Past

There is certainly no shortage of advice on what actions leaders should take to successfully implement change.

However, despite the plethora of guidance available, organizations generally have difficulty executing their “brave idea”. The desired change doesn’t see the light of day; the intended benefits aren’t realized; dysfunction and discontent are often left as the aftermath.

Traditional change management methodology has two fundamental flaws.

First, the premise of change management is based on the future. It focuses on what needs to be done differently in order to meet expected new environmental and competitive shifts.

The risk here is the implicit internal message that can be sent that somehow the past (and by implication the people who were there) is “bad”, and is responsible for the jeopardy leadership says the organization faces.

I’ve seen “warriors” in the organization steadfastly refuse to consider a change in direction because they felt betrayed; they were recognized and rewarded yesterday but today seem to be condemned for getting the company “into this mess”.

Second, change management is treated as an intellectual exercise; one that concentrates on people comprehending strategically what needs to be done given the forecasted threats and opportunities the organization is likely to encounter.

Accepting the need for change at the strategic level is easy; people “get it” because at this stage of the conversation the impact on individuals is rarely understood in detail.

Intellectualizing the need for change doesn’t mean people will jump on the bandwagon to support it.

What is needed is a bridge between understanding the change required and emotionally wanting to play an active role in helping the change get implemented; the trigger that compels the intellect to act.

That trigger is the organization’s history. It harbors the latent emotional energy for employees to be passionate about the change leadership says is required.

The past is the evidence that the organization is capable of adapting to a changing environment.

It provides demonstrated evidence that, in the face of formidable opposing forces, success can be achieved with people who WERE prepared to take on new challenges at the expense of their comfort zone.

The past can inspire people to believe a new future is possible; that people have the capacity to shift “the way they’ve always done things around here”.

It is crucial to honor past achievements and praise the people who delivered them if you expect them to now take on more change. A leader who incessantly reminds people that “the only constant is change” will only repel change agents, not attract them.

Honor the past; use it to usher in the future.

Use it as the right to ask people to take the journey and create another new future.

Then say goodbye.

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