The Most Important Skill for Leaders Heading into an Uncertain Future

I’ve just returned from a week in Frankfurt Germany. While there, I co-facilitated a strategic leadership workshop for a group of executives at a global technology company with my friend and colleague Nick Noyes. Nick is a partner and co-founder of Insight Experience, the company that designed the business simulation we use in the program.

Nick and I work together a few times a year and I can always count on learning something new when he’s leading the participants through a debrief of the simulation results. In recent years, Nick has been passing along a concept he learned from the business school professor and consultant, Roch Parayre called, “robust capabilities.” For Parayre, a robust capability describes an organizational capability that can be used in a variety of situations. Irrespective of how things change, a robust capability will be useful.

You could argue that learning to play the piano and read music is a robust capability that prepares you for a variety of musical pursuits. Learning to play the banjo limits your options (Is it just me or does anyone else hear their mother saying, “I told you so!”)

Parayre has devoted much of his scholarship and practice to the art and science of strategic decision-making. He is particularly interested in decision-making under conditions of uncertainty. Parayre argues that many of the decision-making tools used by today’s business leaders work best when conditions outside of an organization’s control remain relatively stable. For example, using net present value calculations to help make capital investment decisions assumes that the values we assign to alternatives won’t be affected by disruptive technologies, government regulations or unexpected competition.

In a world characterized by uncertainty, ambiguity and rapid change we should be suspicious of what we accept as immutable knowledge and expertise. Eric Hoffer once said, “In times of change, learners inherit the earth; while the learned find themselves beautifully equipped to deal with a world that no longer exists.” To be a learner is to be skilled at asking questions.

I would argue that the skill of asking better questions is the most robust capability to be developed for leaders hoping to navigate the complexities of an uncertain future.

Let’s say an organization’s leaders are faced with a decision about which human resource information system to purchase. Consider the difference between the questions we have been trained to ask and questions that might help us reduce the risk of missing something important:

Questions from leaders who assume the future will resemble the present

·    What will be the impacts of each system on productivity?

·    Which system includes better implementation support and more responsive service when things go wrong?

·    What are the costs and timelines associated with the change management required to implement the system?

What leaders trained to ask better questions also want to know

·    Which processes should we stop doing before automation makes them harder to discontinue?

·    How will automating our HR systems impact existing social networks? In other words, what benefits of inefficiency will we be losing?

·    How might we design a low-risk experiment to help us better anticipate the impacts of committing to a full systems implementation?

The saying goes at Interaction Associates that when feeling trapped by the uncertainty of a strategic moment, “It’s not knowing what to do that counts. It’s knowing what to do when you don’t know what to do.” When feeling stuck for an answer because things have changed, the ability to formulate a better question will serve you better than revising the way you answer the wrong question.

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