4 Strategies to Help Your Organization Thrive in Ambiguous Times

By Dave Ulrich, Norm Smallwood | February 9, 2022

Now, more than ever, identifying and delivering differentiated capabilities will create value and build customer and investor confidence. RBL’s co-founders, Dave Ulrich and Norm Smallwood, have identified four high-impact ways leaders can focus their organizations to build human capability that enables growth during uncertain times.

Key Takeaways:

  • Uncertainty will continue and we can’t wait for tomorrow to make choices. Instead, it's important to focus on building traction during ambiguity.
  • This is great time to reconnect with what makes your organization unique, and how well you are delivering a customer centric culture.
  • Leadership must be in tune with stakeholder needs and positioned to deliver the right customer and employee experience.

There has never been a more challenging time to be a leader. As leaders continue to absorb ambiguity, they need to stay focused on building confidence in the future. Confidence in the future comes as leaders are able to identify and clearly articulate how their organization creates value in a changed world and assess how to transform existing strategy, structures, processes, and systems to deliver that value in a differentiated way to customers.

As uncertainty continues in health, economic, political, and social realms, we continue to provide solutions that help our clients build human capability that delivers value. Though all organizations are different, these are the common tips that have helped businesses survive and thrive throughout uncertain times:

1. Build leaders that can harness uncertainty.
2. Make sure HR is focused on building human capabilities that matter.
3. Position for customer advantage.
4. Build an agile organization.

1. Build leaders that can harness uncertainty.

Today’s challenges are stretching even the most seasoned and skilled leaders. Great organizations recognize that and are prioritizing leadership development to support their leaders at all levels in the organization.

Technology advances have enhanced the virtual learning experience to approximate, and in some ways exceed, the in-person format. The key is to find ways to shift the balance between “expert” and “learner”, and to draw participants in. Structure programs more creatively so the learning and applications engage the individuals participating in the program. Connect them around meaningful questions with internal stakeholders and each other. Finally, ensure the programs offer flexibility to provide timely and relevant content to deliver on organizational objectives, providing a return on the investment that benefits internal and external stakeholders.

Arm your leaders with the skills they need to keep promises even in today’s challenging times, communicate directly about current and changing situations, renew, engage, and retain their teams, co-create a better future for the organization, and collaborate in new and powerful ways.

Now more than ever in our lifetimes, leaders need support and resources to build their personal skillsets. As you consider how and where to invest in your organization’s leaders, consider the following resources:

  1. 5 Ways to Shift Your Leadership Towards Greater Adaptability as Uncertainty Continues 
  2. Embracing and Harnessing Uncertainty: Leadership Skills for Uncertain Times
  3. Level Up Leadership: Increasing Effectiveness and Impact of Leadership at Different Levels 
  4. Leadership Moneyball: Identifying and Building Leadership Attributes that Deliver Results 

2. Make sure HR is focused on building human capabilities that matter.

HR needs to be focused on building the human capability that the business needs to succeed. RBL’s recent research shows that the degree to which HR functions delivered critical capabilities explains almost 25% of the variance in business results. HR functions that can do this are organized in ways that prioritize delivering strategic HR support in the most effective way while efficiently supporting foundational business needs (payroll, benefits, etc.).

HR professionals who build human capability start with an understanding of how the business is growing and the skillset to know how to use HR processes to build capabilities required for success. They are able to effectively simplify complexity, foster collaboration, and mobilize information.

HR can act as the hub for developing the systems for coping with change. By determining the best ways to support performance during uncertainty, HR can help insulate the workforce in preparation for emerging challenges. Supporting cross-functional teams and projects can grow agility and lead to competitive advantage. Creating a protocol for driving change and giving teams a blueprint to follow eases uncertainty and adds new skills that will continue to be valuable in future endeavors. Helping line leaders attract, retain, and elevate diverse talents can ensure you have access to the talent you need to keep your organization running…and growing.

Remote work and social distancing present great opportunities for reinventing how to engage and develop people throughout the organization.

This is a perfect time to reconnect HR to the business so it is focused on strengthening the capabilities that make your organization truly stand out. To explore more about how to do that, consider the following resources:

  1. HR Transformation: High-level Introduction
  2. New HRCS 8 Competency Model Focuses on Simplifying Complexity 
  3. Improve HR to Improve Business Performance 
  4. 5 Simple Concepts for Becoming a Better HR Business Partner 
  5. HRCS Round 8 Research Report 

3. Position for customer advantage.

For many organizations the external reality is changing. Priorities for 2022 and beyond are under the intense scrutiny brought on by uncertainty around future consumption patterns, working conditions, and even political and demographic realities. Though there are many unknowns, customer needs will likely shift, competitors will respond in different ways, and industries will be redefined. When leading through a crisis, effective leadership teams respond by doing a thorough evaluation of how well their organization is positioned to deliver what their customers want.

The most important decisions leadership teams make are about how they position their organizations to create differentiated value for customers. In times of radical change, what provides value to customers is often changing faster than organizations can anticipate. Sustainable growth occurs when internal capabilities and priorities are aligned to deliver what your customers will want—not what they used to want.

For additional thoughts on better organizing to deliver what customers will want, see the following resources:

  1. Organizing for Customer Experience 
  2. Building Stakeholder Confidence in the Future that Increases Value 
  3. 5 Principles for Creating Organizational Alignment 
  4. Culture is Not Enough, Get the Right Culture

4. Build an agile organization

The pressures on organizations to be more agile and to do more with fewer resources have had profound impact on organizations around the world over the last two years. Organizations that are winning have found ways to identify and prioritize the most important work and reallocate resources to best support that. Leaders usually make cost decisions based on alternative scenarios and financial modeling. This is a good start but often isn’t enough. If those alternative scenarios are not grounded in identifying and protecting distinctive capabilities that create advantage in the eyes of their target customers, they can lead to declining results. Great leaders are able to allocate resources in ways that position them to emerge even stronger than before.

When leaders take this approach to efficiency, they clarify the distinctive capabilities needed for their business to succeed. Armed with this intent, they streamline work based on its contribution to distinctiveness. This unleashes resources for reinvestment in the work that customers care about by reducing or eliminating other work. Ultimately the organization emerges from the crisis better positioned for the future.

  1. Strategic Restructuring: Create a Strategy That Cuts Fat Not Muscle
  2. Business Cost Alignment Using the Work-Out Process
  3. Q&A: Strategic Restructuring for Costs and Capabilities
  4. 5 Principles for Creating Organizational Alignment

To discuss how these ideas could help your organization adapt and thrive through adversity, contact us.

Dave has published over 30 books on leadership, organization, and human resources. These ideas have shaped how people and organizations deliver value to customers, investors, and communities. He has consulted and done research with over half of the Fortune 200 and worked in over 80 countries.  He has received numerous public recognitions and lifetime awards for his work. 

About the author

Norm Smallwood is a partner and co-founder of The RBL Group. His research and consulting focuses on helping organizations increase business value by building organization, leadership, and people capabilities that measurably impact market value. He has written extensively about leadership and organization effectiveness in eight books and over a hundred articles. 

About the author
The RBL Group

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