Management challenge #21 - when managing in an environment of constant change and uncertainty

Bruce Tulgan

In the course of my work, I’ve come to know more than my share of what I call “change masters,” that is, leaders and managers with great track records of successfully leading direct-reports through minefields of change (in some cases literally). From these change masters I’ve learned what I call the three pillars of leading people through change:

  1. Remind people constantly of whatever is constant. What is never going to change around here?
  2. Engage in regular contingency planning with your people. What is likely to change? Exactly what will we do if that happens? Coach your people through practice runs of regularly recurring scenarios. What if “that” happens again? Exactly what will we do if “that” happens again?
  3. When the unforeseen occurs, adapt and improvise. What else can you do?

What are your constants? What do you know for sure is not going to change any time soon? It’s different in every organization and every team. Do you have rules, regulations, and procedures that can serve as “rules of engagement” for your direct-reports? Standard operating procedures? In a high-change environment, one of the biggest favors you can do for your direct-reports is to remind them regularly about all those things that are not going to change.

Once you know what is not going to change, then pretty much everything else is on the table. Of course, the toughest change to deal with is change that comes as if without warning. Unforeseen changes leave everybody scrambling to adapt and improvise. How many of these unforeseen changes should have been foreseeable? That’s what contingency planning is for: Trying to anticipate and prepare for changes in advance to deal with any number of scenarios that may (or may not) happen (“contingencies”). If you are managing under conditions of great uncertainty or intense change, start building in regular contingency planning as part of your ongoing one-on-one dialogues: Talk about impending changes of which either of you are aware, for which you need to start preparing. Brainstorm risk factors of change. What are the forces likely to drive change that would directly affect you in the short term? Brainstorm foreseeable changes that could occur. What are the most likely contingencies? Start working together on step by step planning for the most likely contingencies:

If A happens, you do 1, 2, 3, 4, 5

If C happens, you do 6, 7, 8, 9

If E happens, you do 11, 12, 13

Focus in particular on regularly recurring scenarios. “That” happens a lot. When “that” happens again, exactly what should we do? Use what you know about regularly recurring scenarios to do practice runs through the scenario whenever possible. That’s especially a good idea if you are managing a team who work together interdependently. Think of it as similar to practicing sports drills. Imagine you are a baseball team. Get together for infielding practice. Have your infielders practice turning double plays. If you have the opportunity, run through entire “scrimmage” games even.

ABOUT THE AUTHORBruce Tulgan is an adviser to business leaders all over the world and a sought-after keynote speaker and seminar leader. He is the founder and CEO of RainmakerThinking, Inc., a management research and training firm, as well as RainmakerThinking.Training, an online training company. Bruce is the best-selling author of numerous books including Not Everyone Gets a Trophy (Revised & Updated, 2016), Bridging the Soft Skills Gap (2015), The 27 Challenges Managers Face (2014), , and It’s Okay to be the Boss (2007). He has written for the New York Times, the Harvard Business Review, HR Magazine, Training Magazine, and the Huffington Post. Bruce can be reached by e-mail at brucet@rainmakerthinking.com, you can follow him on Twitter @BruceTulgan, or visit his website www.rainmakerthinking.com.


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