Practical Guide to Uncertainty

Introduction

As someone who works all over the world, Coronovirus has added an extra layer of uncertainty to my work. It is unsettling to wake up to headlines about airlines cancelling flights and restricted movement plans by governments.

I learnt a lot as global head of contingency planning and disaster recovery years ago which has shaped my approach to these situations. These are my top tips:

Be kind to ourselves

The stress we are feeling is caused by our need to focus. We have to keep looking out for signals about what is happening, always alert to the need to change our plans. This is in contrast to getting on with our usual routines which are unconscious competence, an automatic set of routines which are comfortable and familiar with known outcomes.

This means even our normal tasks become more tiring as there is a voice in our head querying:

  • Are we doing the right things?
  • Is this task necessary?
  • Should we be doing something else?

Recognise we become more tired more easily, and don’t overload our schedules with too many things (for those who know me, I appreciate I am in danger of being inauthentic here!!!)

Create more capacity

One of the things I learnt from professional crisis teams in my previous role was to “clear the decks” to create room to think. Thinking is the most important element of excellent crisis management:

  • Think through the prioritisation of tasks – this is on a loop because as the situation evolves, all decisions have to be reviewed frequently.
  • Think about who needs to be told what and when, how to tell them and make yourself available for their follow up questions.
  • Think about creative solutions for getting work done with less people, or in different locations or with less equipment or data than normal.

To create capacity, start with yourself and tidy everything up. If you think you are about to hit an uncertain period, tidy your in-box, make sure you are up to date with everything, process all of your outstanding work so you are ready to do other, unexpected tasks instead.

Increase our planning

My first lesson was that the impact of uncertainty is increased planning. We have to plan for our intended actions but we also have to plan contingency arrangements so that if circumstances change we know what our options are.

This means we need to define 3 scenarios:

1. Everything works out fine

2. There are some delays and disruptions but we can still do most of what we need to do

3. There is severe disruption and we have to cancel our original plans and carry out an alternative.

This requires some imagination to identify scenarios 2 and 3 and for born optimists this can feel disconcerting as they feel they are giving into negative thoughts and catatrophising.

However, it is a skill to analyse a situation and work out what is most likely to not happen. It is the basis of all risk management: identify those outcomes with the highest probability of being viewed as non essential by others as those will be the things that will be cancelled first.

Use your analytical skills

Scenario planning requires a strong understanding of benefits because we need to be able to prioritise quickly. Be clear on what work is essential i.e. creates the greatest benefit. In a crisis this is often different to the normal day to day benefits – often it is what is needed now that enables other things to happen. In a crisis ask different questions about what we are trying to achieve as this will lead you to different benefits:

  • Who are the key customers that we cannot let down and who can be put on hold?
  • Which services must be delivered in this time-frame and which can be rescheduled to a later date?
  • Which rules, measures and performance criteria must be applied, and which can be suspended?

Don’t panic

Finally, don’t stop everything. Assess the situation, but wherever possible, keep going. Stopping when stopping is not justified triggers more work for everyone else as they have to pick up the slack. So unless the evidence indicates otherwise, get on with your job so others can get on with theirs.

Conclusion

I hope you find these tips helpful. I covered lots of crises in my previous career, from terrorism, natural disasters and data losses. By applying these rules (especially creating space to think) we always coped.

Do get in touch to share your favourite tips for navigating through uncertainty. No-one has all the answers so it is good to share.