Learn (Don’t Just Manage): Three Critical Steps to Help Navigate Through Perilous Moments

Nearly a quarter century has passed since Stephen Covey, who sold 20 million books and authored Seven Habits of Highly Effective People, cautioned against allowing the urgent to crowd out the important. He reminded leaders of the tremendous pull of the urgent demands of today and advised being more mindful of addressing the complex challenges of tomorrow. Covey’s wisdom and insight remain timeless, but the demands of our volatile and uncertain world have exposed an even greater vulnerability. CEOs should note three critical steps: getting unstuck; building new capabilities and routines; and sustaining the changes.

Today everything important comes shrouded in a veil of disruption, discontinuity, and a demand for quick action to calm the storm and satisfy the Street. There is great danger in treating these tumultuous dynamics as nasty interruptions to get past, rather than engaging them as powerful points of inflection and windows of opportunity for continuous learning and change. Nassim Taleb, a former derivatives trader who became a scholar focused on what to do in a world we don’t understand, argues that attempts to wipe away unpredictability by imposing control and overlaying structure do little to smooth out the constant waves of disequilibrium. Indeed, these efforts merely create the illusion of stability while actually elevating the risk of obtaining marginal improvement at best, and failing at worst. The true answer lies in cultivating leaders and organizations that can see around corners, handle first-time conditions, and recognize the shortcomings inherent in applying the tried and true to new and more complex situations.

A prominent financial services CEO we know likes to use the metaphor of adapting to a corporate house that was once provided as part of his financial package. Despite the generous use of property and the provision of a sizable budget for customization, his family never succeeded in making it their “home”. The design and layout they needed and wanted couldn’t be created on the old foundation. Nevertheless, he continued to invest in incremental “improvements” without confronting the foundational limitations that inevitably sabotaged his efforts. He told this story to caution against rebuilding and reinventing one’s organization using the old foundation, urging us to reexamine our foundations (assumptions) regularly. At the same time, he gave voice to the concerns all were experiencing in letting go and moving in a new direction.

This simple metaphor conveys much wisdom about organizational “stuckness” in the face of volatility, uncertainty, complexity and ambiguity, or what we like to call “VUCA”. The demands for growth and immediate action can obscure the real solutions and block the pathway to reframing and transformation. Much is operating to keep incremental behavior in place. The global marketplace pressures CEOs to double down on maintaining some level of growth while continuing to meet analyst expectations. Accepting the vulnerability and risk that comes with letting go of conventional wisdom and prior success can be a daunting task for even the most robust of leaders and organizations. Witness how Dell and Blackberry are setting aside highly successful business models, in service of remaining viable and agile in the face of uncertainty, ambiguity, escalating financial pressure and relentless change. But having the courage to shift is only the tip of the iceberg in terms of the learning mindset required to deliver on the new promise. We see three critical steps: getting unstuck; building new capabilities and routines; and sustaining the changes.

In terms of the first step, leaders and organizations are often stuck in patterns of behaving and operating that have kept them in good stead for years. Traditional approaches to development teach us to be successful by managing people, tasks and the business, but they often overlook getting unstuck from approaches that worked in the past but no longer apply. Consequently, we develop models or logic about our world that helps us read the environment and act quickly. As the logic gets reinforced it becomes second nature, almost unconscious. It affects what we see and the choices we make. As long as the world remains the same as when the logic was built, the models work well. But in a VUCO world, (volatile, uncertain, complex, ambiguous) all bets are off!


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