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William Hurst

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How to manage ambiguity and uncertainty – the role of executive education


William Hurst navigates us through the VUCA world of L&D.

One of the most distinguishing skills of a company executive and leader is managing uncertainty, ambiguity and therefore complexity. Managing complexity is not just a fashionable topic but a key organisational plus that needs to be mastered by any top manager. To understand why this is the case those concerned first need to be aware of the sources of complexity within a firm. 

Four primary identifiable sources exist, the first being diversity. Just to add to the complexity this can be both internal and external, and not only intercultural but also sociological, economic and political. Another source is interdependence, a notion that blurs boundaries between the company and its environment so that client/supplier/company value chains are increasingly interlinked. Next comes ambiguity, a prime characteristic of today’s world packed with an overabundance of information that is less and less clear, making interpretation difficult and often invalid. How can we define a clear value proposition against this background? Finally, uncertainty plays a big part. Today’s success stories can be tomorrow’s pitfalls for failure in an environment experiencing constant and increasingly change.

Running a complex organisation requires a different mindset. The leader should take an overall network view rather than look at the company in isolation. Beyond mastering situational leadership, there is a need to drive this extended company to create value. In such a situation, the leader needs to maintain ongoing communication based on storytelling and explanations rather than figures and commands.

Managing uncertainty cannot be reduced to simplify complex issues. What successful leaders do is to simplify their messages while, at the same time, creating variety and opportunities. In order to achieve this and motivate teams, the company executive must provide a frame of reference: cultural and business parameters in which employees are able to act.

The key issue for a leader is therefore knowing what to simplify and what to expand upon in order to create opportunities. This is made possible by developing three key skills:

The first of these is clarity. While this may seem obvious it is not something we all practise in our professional lives. A good manager has to explain and repeat constantly simplified messages in order to combat complexity. This clarity should be allied to curiosity. Being inquisitive is an essential mechanism for implementing a rationale of empowerment amongst teams. The more interest a leader takes in the employees’ work, the more creative these employees become due to the open working climate. Underpinning these first two skills is courage. It takes a good dose of bravery to be able to let go and not be in a permanent position of control. Good company executives accept that they do not know everything, while also recognising the role played by values and the importance of emotions in the decision making process.

So, how can a business leader be trained to become an effective manager of complexity? 

If we were to make a shopping list of what a training programme of this kind should offer it would no doubt have to include items such as communicating a vision with commitment, emotions and decision-making, developing teams’ skills, managing diversity, geopolitics, trend prediction and value analysis. However, such a shopping list of ingredients would not produce the right recipe if they were not brought together with the underlying philosophy that can go a long way to guaranteeing their success.

Any programme designed to trigger such a transformation has to adopt a global approach built on several core principles which mirror all of the convictions described above.

It is vitally important that the structure of the training provided reflects its aim. In this way, the learning processes and methods are as important as the topics covered. This is achieved by adopting the logic of ‘learning to learn’.  With such an approach high-potential individuals or managers can constantly adapt and challenge themselves. 

Once this is accepted, experience-based learning can be used to its full potential. Essential in designing and presenting training sessions for top-level executives and high potentials, this method helps transfer skills from training to the workplace: the ultimate objective of any executive education solution. Such learning should focus on the 3 Es - Education, Exposure, Experience.  A blended delivery model of this kind increases both learning transfer and participant engagement. It does this by drawing on mixes of distance learning/reading and lectures, using case studies and quizzes, by encouraging the observation of other practices together with  testimonials and company visits, and by relying on self-assessment, role play, simulations, action learning projects, experiential exercises, etc.

Allied to this more direct learning is the notion of indirect learning. This puts an executive in someone else’s shoes and should be widely used as it facilitates awareness and therefore behaviour change. It becomes even more effective when used in the context of a project based on a common theme of strategic importance. By implementing the creative problem-solving process, each group must identify and define the challenge and subsequently provide a solution and associated action plan. The topic selected should be derived from the company’s strategic plan.

These techniques naturally work best when all members of the group are pulling in the same direction. One way of instilling this solidarity is to take the participants out of the classroom to share a common experience. A learning trip should enable all participants to be exposed to an intensively diverse experience through multiple teaching methods: round-table discussions, visits to local and international companies and testimonials. In order to get the most from this trip, thorough preparation and a formal account of the trip afterwards are required.

Some may argue that such a method of teaching the management of complexity seems itself complex. True, the approach is a departure from the teacher-student, classroom-bound models of the past and can therefore seem destabilising for some. However, executive education is changing almost as fast as the business world it serves. Failing to recognise this would result in failing to get the best executive training programmes. 

William Hurst is director of Audencia Group Executive Education


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