A Checklist For Challenging Times

If you’re feeling the world is changing more dramatically and abruptly than ever, you’re not alone.

Major and unexpected shifts are becoming increasingly frequent. The global COVID-19 lockdown. The Black Lives Matter movement. And the next one…

Photo of a mountain

Photo by Eberhard Grossgasteiger

And these events have left us with incredibly poor visibility into the future. Frankly, no-one has a clue what’s going to happen next! Who knows what the economy will be like, what shifts in demand we’ll see, who’ll be the winners and the losers.

Even on the much smaller scale of a single business, the ecosystem in which our business operates has become so complex and interrelated, it’s not possible to neatly model cause-and-effect.

So, what’s the tool we need to turn to when complexity and uncertainty rises?

A checklist.

A checklist focuses our attention on critical but easy-to-miss issues

You may sniff, but it’s been proven that even highly-trained experts such as medical professionals and commercial airline pilots find that systematic use of checklists dramatically reduce error-rates and increase performance

Very simply, the complexities of modern professional occupations can outflank even their best-trained practitioners. So, when the pressure rises, it’s great to have a way to direct your attention to the issues that matter.

So, what’s your leadership checklist for these challenging times?

At Xquadrant, I work with CEOs and other senior business leaders on creating committed and adaptable organizations that thrive in challenging times. We’ve identified six main strategic themes and 17 specific actions that business leaders can take to lead themselves and their teams through this season.

Feel free to grab a copy of the “CXO Checklist For Challenging Times” here – you can use it straight away or take it as a starting point to develop your own customized checklist.

We can’t cover all the points in detail here, but let’s dive into a couple of themes from this ‘challenging times checklist’.

Theme #1 Engineer Anti-fragility

How do you navigate a world when you have no idea what big surprise is around the corner? How do you help your team, your organization thrive in that context?

Presumably, we want to build organizations that aren’t fragile but are robust.

Well, no actually.

Nicolas Taleb coined the term “Anti-Fragility” to point out that the opposite of fragile is not robust. Fragile things break when exposed to shocks. Robust things don’t change.

But some things actually benefit from shocks and stress and get stronger.

  • Think of the human body. If we go to the gym, say, we’ll ache but we’ll get stronger – whereas if we lie in a bed for weeks on end our muscles can atrophy and our health weakens.
  • Or think of nature. A forest fire can rip through a whole area – but often the forest will come back stronger as a result, with more diversity and a healthier ecosystem.

So – how can you make your business anti-fragile? How can it get stronger though these shocks?

Very practically, there are two areas to examine:

  • Identify the ‘fragilities’ in how you are currently operating. Where are the single points of failure? Where do you have ‘all your eggs in one basket’? And what’s so complex, finely-tuned and over-optimised that it will break as soon as situations change?
  • Look for ways to increase your ‘luck exposure’. How can you generate more, varied opportunities in your business? How can you open yourself up to “beneficial randomness”? What new relationships, events and strategies might create serendipity?

Both of these are fantastic conversations to have with your team.

(As an aside – on a personal level, you can do this too. For example: diversify your income streams. A corporate employee feels ‘robust’ – until they’re laid off and find their income plummets to zero, possibly with an out-of-date skill set. Employment is generally fragile; freelancing or entrepreneurship is anti-fragile. A freelancer has more volatility than a corporate employee, but will feel and be able to adapt to market changes as they occur.)

Theme #2 Emphasise Learning over Performance

Market conditions may not allow you or your team to deliver your desired level of performance right now. However, in times of great change, speed of learning is a more powerful metric. How are you doing on that?

Are you learning faster than the market is changing? Are you learning faster than your competitors?

And as a leader, what kind of learning culture have you created in your team?

Do you have effective action/reflection cycles to learn and adapt faster than the external rate of change? Are people busy trying, failing, learning, pivoting, and succeeding?

How well do you celebrate learning? People often talking about ‘celebrating failure’. I don’t think we need to celebrate the failure, exactly – but definitely celebrate the learning that comes from failure.

Now, develop your personalized checklist

These are two areas that you might not have considered amongst all the chaos of recent months. Where else do you need to put your attention?

Download your “CXO Checklist For Challenging Times” here and see what else strikes you. And then develop your own unique checklist to review each month. And let me know – what else would you add to your own personalized checklist?

This was a guest article by Richard Medcalf. Richard is the found of Xquadrant. Xquadrant helps turn high achievers into the leaders of the highest level.

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