Moving forward in uncertain times … 4 success factors.

Excerpted from: HBR, How to Get Unstuck, by Rita Gunther McGrath and Ian C. MacMillan, May 2009

A lot of businesspeople seem to be frozen in the headlights, paralyzed by uncertainty, fear of failure, and lack of trust.

In studying how leaders prevail in uncertain times, we’ve observed four practices you can use to get yourself, your people, and your firm moving again.

1. Decrease uncertainty.

  • Rather than wait until you can clearly see the entire route to a distant goal, focus on getting to the next bend.
  • Identify a series of near-term goals that can serve as checkpoints along the way, indicating your progress and illuminating the best way forward.
  • As you proceed down the path, you can stop, change direction, or continue on the same trajectory, depending on what you learn en route to each checkpoint.

This approach is cost-effective and reduces risk because only relatively small investments are required to move from one milestone to the next and because it reveals false starts early.

2. Reduce the fear of failure.

  • People fear failing, particularly in a downturn, when they think any misstep might cost a job.
  • As a result,they tend to freeze because it appears that the easiest way to avoid failing is to do nothing.
  • To spur action, shift your emphasis from cutting the rate of failure to minimizing the cost of failure.
  • To reduce people’s anxiety, give them permission to be wrong but not to make expensive mistakes.

Silicon Valley’s famous discipline—fail fast, fail cheap, and move on—applies here.

3. Hedge your bets.

In some cases, the shortest route to the goal involves investing in simultaneous experiments whose outcomes are mutually exclusive: Try A, B, and C in tandem; whichever succeeds first necessarily negates the others.

4. Create momentum.

Once you’ve settled on a course, two further steps can give the final push needed to get moving:

First, remember that the more uncertain things are, the more people prefer to stick with comfortable and predictable routines. Leaders need to insist on substantial, coordinated changes that depart from obsolete practices and make business-as-usual impossible.

Second, they need to defang or otherwise neutralize the people who persist in resisting change.

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