Sunday, August 3, 2008

It’s That “Age of Ambiguity” Thing Again

In my January 27, 2008 post I discussed how to manage and lead teams in an era of ambiguity. In this week’s post I revisit the topic from a slightly different tack. The previous post focused on leadership skills, this will deal more with a methodology for navigating uncertain waters.

I now take it as a given that there isn’t a whole lot we can take for certain anymore. I do know that the love of my wife and children is unshakeable, that the sun will always rise in the east, and that I am unlikely to ever acquire a taste for broccoli. Beyond that, much of life seems to be like the proverbial bowl of jelly that I keep trying to nail to the wall. But the fact that I cannot foretell the future and therefore prepare for it perfectly, does not mean that I cannot be prepared for the future.

Much of life is based upon assumptions. Some of the assumptions I make are good ones and some are not so good. The same can be said for assumptions we use every day in business planning. More importantly, for this discussion, some are critical to the success of any given proposition, and some are more vulnerable to failure. I think understanding which assumptions fall into those two categories is important in shaping strategy and actions during an endeavor. So important, in fact, that identifying these two categories of assumptions is critical to the success of any initiative or project undertaken in an environment of uncertainty.

Those assumptions that are most critical to success must be supported. Actions should be ordered with this intent so as to ensure that these critical assumptions are borne out. Likewise, those assumptions most vulnerable to failure should be identified and then watched very closely. It is critical to keep the pulse of these two categories of assumptions because knowing their health allows you to act and react appropriately. The question then becomes how to do so.

One answer is to look into the future and define what kind of occurrences or scenarios will indicate that an assumption has succeeded or failed. These signposts, if you will, then become your trail guides. You can pre-plan shaping and hedging actions so that once you recognize success or failure you can react accordingly to either support the success of the assumption, redirect actions to improve a faltering assumption, or take actions required to limit the damage of a failed assumption. Shaping and hedging actions then, become critical elements in your execution of strategic and tactical plans.

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