Change Management in Crisis Situations: Navigating Uncertainty and Disruption

Paul Naybour

A quick glance at the news on any given day will give a clear indication of just how much uncertainty, change and complexity we are faced with, and how much those at the top can often struggle to manage project crisis situations. It is little wonder, therefore, that when it comes to managing change in situations of crisis, we are continually evaluating how we should tackle and navigate all of the uncertainties and disruptions that occur

From natural disasters like earthquakes and volcanic eruptions, economic downturns, and even global pandemics, we never truly know how much of an impact each crisis situation will have. We also don’t know how long the after-effects may last. The 2020 global pandemic was a prime example of this, making it very clear that the abilities of leaders to navigate these changes is essential. Whilst there is no guarantee that we won’t find ourselves facing future pandemics, we can hope that we will do so with a few more skills to hand.

In order to be able to lead others effectively in situations that are increasingly complex it is necessary for leaders to gain the understanding to lead themselves. With that in mind there are six strategies that can assist when it comes to improving those abilities that may help in the event of future more complex challenges.

Ultimate Guide to
Change Management

Embrace the unknown

The human brain is hardwired in such a way that we are conditioned to come up with a single correct, definitive answer – we see uncertainty as something of a threat. It is, in fact, perfectly normal to feel some level of stress when you are faced with something unfamiliar. Never more so than when you are a high achiever who has always “found” the right answer. Avoiding this feeling may appear necessary at times, but it can become a barrier to learning and future growth.

It is important to embrace these feelings and the discomfort they bring and move away from what is often termed the “know it all” mindset in favour of something that is more “learn it all”. This can effectively help to reduce discomfort, and remove much of the pressure you might feel when you don’t have all the answers.

Consider the difference between complicated and complex

For many, the two terms are interchangeable. However, they do, in fact, represent very different circumstances.

Something that is complicated is very technical in nature and rather difficult to understand until it is broken down into smaller parts, or the opinion of an expert is sought to find a solution.

Things that are complex on the other hand are made up of a number of interdependent things. Some of these may be unknown and may also change over time in ways that cannot be predicted. Any changes that are made to one element may have disproportionate outcomes that are difficult to predict. As a result of this, the solutions to complex challenges are more likely to occur following a period of trial and error. This means that they need an ability to learn, adapt and act.

You can’t always be perfect

Continually aiming for perfection in a complex environment where any context is always moving is almost impossible. What you should aim for instead is progress, whilst accepting that you may make mistakes which you have the ability to correct. This can be difficult for some people, particularly when perfection is the only thing that know but it is important to realise that this simply cannot happen all the time. “Looking bad” or “making the wrong decision” isn’t always a bad thing. It can be the route to greater knowledge and understanding.

Resist over simplifying and making quick conclusions

Whilst it can be tempting to oversimplify any complex challenge so that it may seem less complex, this may, in fact, narrow the view that you have of the issue and obscure any critical interdependencies. This may result in you feeling a false sense of security. In the same way, drawing on information from past challenges may in some way be useful. However, it may also lead to you missing any of the unique nuances that your present challenge offers.

Many high achievers prefer action and when a solution does not immediately present itself to an issue can become frustrated. Instead of believing that you must find a quick solution, it is important to balance the need for action with a more disciplined approach that will give you a greater understanding of the issue at hand.

Definitive Guide to
Project Leadership

You can’t do it all in project crisis situations

To many leaders, the idea that it is necessary for them to solve all the issues on their own is a huge stumbling block that can lead them to feeling particularly isolated. As workloads become more complex and heavier, it is a mistaken belief that we need to double down on the effort that we are making. This can be an effective strategy in the short term with challenges that have known solutions, but is not a sustainable leadership technique. When it comes to facing those challenges that have a range of complex issues and where solutions are not clear, this can create problems. These are the situations where it is necessary to reach out to other members of your team to look for insight and perspective that will help you.

See the bigger picture

It is all too easy for a team leader to get stuck in the challenge that they’re facing in project crisis situations. Seeing the bigger picture or “zooming out” can help you to see things with a broader perspective. This can shine a light on some of the unexamined project assumptions of the issue that you may not have previously seen. It is often possible to see larger patterns and interdependencies which may help to reveal new solutions. This approach offers a greater degree of adaptability when necessary. When you stop to take a look at the bigger picture on a regular basis, you will shift your ability to become more agile to the problems at hand.

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