The power of uncertainty


Creating your own small disruptions is key to thriving in today’s turbulent business world, says Camelia Ram

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While uncertainty can act as a source of inspiration for employees, it can easily become the root of anxiety. On the one hand, uncertainty can prompt engaged workers to draw upon a range of capabilities, ideas and people to develop cohesive solutions and coordinate timely action. On the other, being overwhelmed with information, or a lack of it, or the potential cost of making inappropriate choices, can make it difficult for employees to put their effort, ideas and passion into their jobs. This can lead to a failure to foster authentic dialogue between leaders and employees, and failure to stay focused on what matters to them both: their customers.

Uncertainty can be driven by many factors inside and outside the organization’s control. These influence one another in complex ways. For example, an anomalous or disruptive event in the economic, social, regulatory or competitive landscape could challenge the organization’s business model, just as the advent of digital technology impacted Kodak’s camera business. Disruptive events could also lead to a lack of clarity or confidence in an individual’s role in supporting organizational objectives.

For example, in the aftermath of the 2008 financial crisis, several banks underwent a series of restructuring exercises, leading to ambiguity regarding individual, team and divisional responsibilities and accountabilities. A prolonged period of uncertainty in the work environment can lead employees to feel unsafe about asking questions, challenging assumptions or even making plans.

So what can leaders do to inspire positive beliefs and actions among employees, in the face of uncertainty?

The key is to create small disruptions deliberately that bring opportunities for change without destabilizing the entire system. As small changes take root, they can transform engagement levels. Our case studies (opposite) show how small changes can boost engagement, and, thus, company effectiveness.

Uncertainty can inspire or drain energy from individuals and teams.

When disruption occurs, staff adapt by applying existing resources or modifying their behaviour to address new circumstances. Developing this degree of responsiveness during periods of uncertainty requires employees to be given clear success criteria and the physical, human and financial resources to explore alternative pathways to achieving business objectives. Such disciplined experimentation not only builds a cadre of future leaders, it ultimately makes the organization more resilient in the face of disruption.

Running questions: the case of Nike

Honing employees’ ability to examine the extent to which the business’s current strengths will position it for future success should be an ever-present priority in today’s volatile environment. When critical thinking and constructive debate are supported by leaders who coach and inspire, employees feel a deeper sense of responsibility for current, as well as future, success.

For example, brainstorming sessions and group exercises were used with employees across sportswear giant Nike to define what its future could look like, and what employees’ roles would be in delivering that vision. Scenarios reinforced the fact that simply maintaining the status quo was not an option. The exercise paved the way for several initiatives to address threats relating to constrained resources, including a waterless dyeing technique using carbon dioxide instead of water.

Driving autonomy: the case of BMW

Organizational challenges pose genuine opportunities for individual and collective progress. Offering employees the autonomy to debate and frame  issues, and providing guidance on developing proposals for addressing them (from checking the quality of the idea to building business cases for execution), builds a sense of ownership. For example, given the increasing demand for cars in developing countries and concurrent pressure to reduce emissions, the BMW Group spent 38 months and €2 billion creating the ‘i’ brand from scratch, building sustainable electric and hybrid-electric vehicles. Even though the director of the project, Carsten Breitfeld, said there were moments when they were unsure how to progress, the i8’s carbon footprint is roughly a third of a conventional automobile’s, making it a game-changer in the industry.

Network power: the cases of Apple and Google

Designing systems, processes and structures to enable lessons and experiences to be shared creates an environment in which there is empathy with diverse perspectives, honest review and ongoing experimentation.

These are vital components of employee engagement. For example, technology giants Apple and Google both encourage the best and brightest people to work together effectively via regular review meetings that involve multiple business units. These simple, yet effective, approaches have enabled both organizations to reimagine multiple sectors, from music to electronic payments to transportation.

Balanced energy: the case of Chevron

Embedding effective decision making in an organization requires a balance between thinking and acting. A focus on thinking may result in an analytically robust answer, but nobody might care. Conversely, a strong focus on acting may lead to agreement based on ignorance.

For the past 20 years, Chevron has successfully deployed decision-analytic approaches to manage risk with the right level of analysis. Selected employees have been trained in these techniques, which have been embedded throughout the organization to support complex decisions. Embedding a clear process drives capability transfer, plus greater transparency, accountability and trust.


Camelia Ram is a consultant with Decision Strategies International