Steven's Blog

Contingency Trumps Certainty

Even though Japanese prime minister Shinzo Abe now has the power to enact a state of emergency, he has hesitated doing so citing lack of evidence so far for meeting the conditions. Yet lack of evidence and evidence of lack are not the same thing, and you need not make the same mistake in leading your business.

Japan, like the United States, has yet to conduct widespread COVID-19 testing, unlike South Korea, Taiwan, and Singapore which have all managed to contain the outbreak—at least for now. The spread of COVID-19 infection might be an exception in Japan compared to other countries, as Prime Minister Abe seems to assume. Then again, it might not. The prime minister’s own team of advisers have said that we might very well see a rapid increase of cases in the coming weeks. The reality is that no one really knows. Japan simply lacks the data.

In a time of crisis, just like in strategy, it is not certainty that you need, but rather a sober cataloging of assumptions, when and how to validate these continuously, and plans of contingent action for when your assumptions turn out to be wrong.

So if you assume that Abe is right, that’s fine, but what is the contingency if Abe turns out to be wrong? What will you be monitoring continuously to validate or invalidate your assumptions? What will trigger your contingent action? Do you have a contingency for a possible state of emergency and lockdown in Japan should these happen, even if you assume right now that they won’t? Do you have a contingency for continued moderate social distancing, even if you assume a state of emergency is most likely to be declared?

My most successful clients do. If you don’t, you ought to be working on these right away.

It is not certainty in what will happen in the future that builds confidence and reduces anxiety, but rather certainty of your capability to handle whatever happens, come what may, even though you don’t know what the future portends. The same is true of your staff. Contingency planning is not just for the health of your business, but also for the health of your state of mind and that of your staff.

It is not certainty in what will happen in the future that builds confidence and reduces anxiety, but rather certainty of your capability to handle whatever happens. Click To Tweet

Personal uncertainty matters too, just as much as business uncertainty, both for you and your staff. A non-Japanese executive who is currently working for her company from home confided in me the uncertainty and anxiety she feels. What if she or her children should get sick? Are there English speaking doctors she knows she can see? Can she access services of a hospital? Who will look after her kids should she and her husband get sick at the same time?

Her anxiety around these questions were without a doubt impacting her performance as well as her mental state, even though most of these questions are relatively straightforward to address, if not easy to do so, if she knew who best to ask. Clear contingent action for these eventualities would go a long way to allay her fears, and I am certain she is not alone.

If you want to lead your business and your people through this crisis in stride, think soberly in terms of contingencies, and not just for your business. Don’t underestimate the importance personal contingency planning for you and your staff. After all, no matter how confident you are in the contingencies for your business, it’s your staff who must execute. Make sure your staff are confident in their own ability to prevail personally come what may. It is only upon the personal confidence that you can build the same confidence for the business.

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