We frequently find ourselves managing in situations of strategic ambiguity—when it isn’t clear where you’re going or how you’ll get there. It can feel like slogging through mud. Investments are stalled. Decisions are deferred. Resources are frozen. Fear, uncertainty, and doubt drive bad behavior and personal agendas.
The best leaders find ways to provide steady, realistic direction and to lead with excellence, even when the strategy isn’t clear. Push leadership for clarity, of course, but, also be productive. There are three things you can do that will put you in a better position to manage strategic ambiguity: Take pragmatic action, cultivate emotional steadiness, and tap into others’ expertise.
Take Pragmatic Action
Get back to basics. Focus on what you can control. Continue to deliver value. Who does your team serve and what are they expecting from you? How can you perform better, faster, or smarter? When uncertainty comes, do good work. You’ll put the company in the best possible position to navigate new strategic choices.
Place intelligent bets. When the strategy is uncertain, the best leaders acknowledge what’s unknown, but also look ahead to what is known and what is likely to happen. What can you do to prepare yourself, your team, and potentially your clients for a change? Place intelligent bets and start to work toward a future state—even when the landscape remains fuzzy
Embrace short-term strategies. Once you’ve focused your team on delivering value and started to explore what’s possible, you’re prepared to move forward with a discrete set of priorities. What can you do to contribute to strategic clarity for your part of the business? What projects can your team execute in 30, 60, or 90 days that will benefit the organization regardless of which direction the strategy takes? Position your team for the future. Don’t stand still. Move your team forward.
Cultivate Emotional Steadiness
Learn more. Doing something concrete helps you move beyond raw emotions. Questions will arise: How will this impact your group? What if this involves job changes, layoffs, or lost resources? Learn as much as you can so you’re informed. Use your internal network and ask others in the organization for insight.
Acknowledge and navigate emotions. Emotional steadiness requires that you be intentional about the way you show up. Your role is to be calm, transparent, and steady, all while painting a vision for the future. Acknowledge your emotions and talk to a peer or coach, if you need to work through them. Play out the worst-case scenario in your mind and then move on to the more likely outcome. Chances are the reality isn’t as bad as what you might conjure up. Your team members are taking their cues from you.
Keep communication open. Strategic uncertainty can cause managers to communicate with team members less frequently and less openly. “If I don’t have the clarity to provide, why not wait?” the thinking goes. But in truth, ambiguous situations require you to communicate even more than normal. Maintaining open dialogue will keep your team engaged and aligned until a clear direction emerges.
Tap into Others’ Expertise
Imagine your most respected leader’s approach. What would they do in your situation? How would they handle the ambiguity? How would they view the way you’re handling yourself? This exercise can be incredibly powerful in helping you stay calm and emotionally steady, taking pragmatic action. Those we most respect have demonstrated traits we admire. Tap into their strengths to inform your own.
Engage other managers. Managers often believe they need to “be strong” and go it alone to demonstrate managerial confidence and competency. This is false. My executive clients reach out to peers and former colleagues regularly for advice, counsel, and emotional support. If someone you know reached out to you to ask for your advice, you’d happily provide support and feel valued as a peer. Your network will feel the same. Start the conversation with “I could really use another point of view” and you’ll be surprised how quickly others engage.
Embrace the wisdom of thought leaders. Your network becomes global when you expand beyond those you know personally to those you can access in today’s environment. The greater your understanding of how others think about strategic agility and change leadership, the better you’ll be able to navigate ambiguity in your company. The brightest and most inspiring minds are at your fingertips—read books and articles, listen to podcasts and interviews, and watch instructive videos, webinars, and more to expand your thinking and learn new approaches relevant to your specific situation.
The ability to thrive during periods of strategic uncertainty separates the great leaders from the rest. Don’t allow a lack of clarity to cast a shadow over your confidence or performance. Even in the most challenging and ambiguous of situations, you put yourself in a position to succeed when you commit to taking pragmatic action while demonstrating emotional steadiness and drawing on the expertise of others.
CALL TO ACTION: Are you facing strategic ambiguity in your career? Let’s brainstorm strategies to navigate through the change. Slot a complimentary 30-min consult here: Schedule Free Consult.
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