How to Embrace Uncertainty, and Create a Culture of Innovation

When business leaders aren't prepared for uncertainty in overall markets, employees become uncertain about their future

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So much of the world now is driven by uncertainty.

The promise of technological innovation is exciting, but we live in a chaotic world. With election outcomes that somehow continue to surprise us, new and exciting services that outstrip the pace of regulation, and tumultuous geopolitical relationships...we live in a guessing game.

That culture of uncertainty seeps through the cracks of businesses that aren't prepared for it. When business leaders aren't prepared for uncertainty in overall markets, employees become uncertain about their future.

Sure, they might remain focused on day-to-day work. But they lose certainty on what their overall goal is: what are they here for? What are they driving towards?

Can workers remain passionate about their roles when automation threatens to take them away, for instance?

Uncertainty leads to eventual contempt. And businesses need to be smarter about how they combat it.

Delivering Innovation

Businesses shouldn't reject complexity. They should embrace it - and let as many employees in on the action as possible. It's the only way to survive.

If you train your employees to look forward to complexity, rather than avoid it, you'll create an engaged workforce that actively seeks out problems. Yes, you will inevitably reveal challenges. But these insights, combined with the right discipline and culture, will lead to more successes.

How does that happen? Through three methods:

Collaborate - but keep people on track

We're all familiar with the idea that collaboration and breaking down silos leads to better outcomes. But often organisations attempting to bypass uncertainty through innovation ignore one of the main factors that keeps them on the straight and narrow: accountability.

Gary P. Pisano, the Harry E. Figgie Jr. Professor of Business Administration and the senior associate dean of faculty development at Harvard Business School, recalls a business case he once studied in the Harvard Business Review. An Amazon employee in 2003 struggled to create a technology plan, so collaborated with different parts of the business to figure out a way forward: the result was Amazon Web Services.

It's a good example of collaboration that's designed through a prism of personal responsibility.

This, of course, is a huge challenge for businesses: you need to make sure your management structure is sophisticated enough to guide, and reward, individual employees for branching out to new departments and taking risks. This also means you need a framework to stamp out ineffectual behaviour.

"Be' Agile, Don't "Do' Agile

Companies attempting to implement an agile framework often run into trouble when their rules and processes don't work. That's because trying to be agile by only implementing rules is like saying you can build a car by following the instructions. It isn't something you can just read and do, it has to be practiced and built into the culture.

There really isn't any better way to say this: to be agile, your company needs to create teams and projects that cross over multiple departments and disciplines. You can't dictate how that's done.

But if you follow the instructions of personal accountability I laid out in the first point, it'll inevitably follow. Once you start making collaboration a mandatory part of the process, everything else falls into place.

Quit Bad Habits by Putting Customers at the Centre

Few companies are actually customer centric. They say they are, but that usually means doing some user groups and calling it a day.

True customer-centric organisations map the entire customer journey from end-to-end, and they make sure to check where the weak links are. Then, as part of an ongoing agile process, they make sure to reference those customer pain points again, and again, and again.

The result? By mapping where your customers go wrong, you're less likely to fall into bad habits. You're constantly holding yourself accountable.

By doing this, uncertainty comes easily. When circumstances change all you need to do is find out what the customer is doing differently, then adapt. It'll be no different from what you've been doing all along.

It isn't easy (none of this is easy). But uncertainty with a plan is better than floundering - and soon, your team will learn to embrace the opportunities that disruption brings.