Think ‘Blockbusters’, not ‘Snakes and Ladders’

Making decisions in uncertain times

 Julie and Malcolm are both Women on Boards’ Ambassadors and deliver our Getting to the C-Suite Leadership programme 

Based on a webinar with Julie Ashworth and Dr Malcolm McGregor of Broachreach Consulting on Friday 20th March 2020.You can access the full webinar recording of this session and the rest of the series in our webinar recordings. 


Our environment has changed. Although we may have considered we were operating in a complex and fast-changing world, we have seen nothing like the sweeping changes that are taking place in response to the Corona virus pandemic. Leaders in every sector now need to make significant decisions at speed to ensure their organisations succeed.

Our current environment truly is what leadership experts describe as ‘VUCA’: Volatile, Uncertain, Complex and Ambiguous. A VUCA environment not only changes the path we need to take to arrive at our goals. It may even shift what those goals are. Therefore, successful leaders require very different type of decision-making framework to what they employ in a ‘business-as-usual’ scenario.

‘Business-as-usual’ is characterised by Cynefin framework as comprising ‘obvious’ or ‘complicated’ decision-making scenarios. In these cases, we can chart a fairly linear course to our objective. As leaders, we look to accelerate progress at key points and avoid pitfalls.
Think of the game Snakes and Ladders. You need to get from A to B, and you’ll win if you get a boost (on a ladder) and lose if you suffer too many set-backs (snakes).

The real-life equivalent is getting extra technical expertise or better data to ‘boost’ your results. Conversely, making a mistake or being ill-prepared can lead to set-backs, which may undo previous progress. This type of ‘game’ environment requires careful planning, fully considered decisions and thoroughly analysed supporting data to get to your precise destination the quickest way possible.

However during the COVID-19 pandemic, almost all decisions will be ‘complex’ at best, or more likely ‘chaotic’, according to the Cynefin framework. This means there is not a precedent to draw on, the data is changing fast and there are multiple variables outside our influence.

Instead of searching for the one clear pathway, leaders must navigate numerous possible routes and even different acceptable outcomes. Think of the Blockbusters game board. There are various ways across the hexagonal pathway, some longer than others but only slightly. A block in the path simply requires us to navigate around it, rather than creating a set-back. And, although we may aim for a particular spot on the other side, arriving adjacent is still a winning result.

So, what lessons for the real world?

Rather than waiting to be certain of the ‘right’ pathway, in our current environment leaders should take small decisions and implement them quickly. Then, analyse the results and take another step, being prepared to change course if it seems beneficial. The key is in the quality of learning from the decisions made – meaning decisions must be taken, and quickly.  

We may also need to re-define our strategic goals and tolerate some negatives outcomes that would have been unacceptable last year, or even last month. For example, governments across Europe are shutting down whole sectors of the economy, with dire economic and social impacts, to prioritise the strategic goal of protecting the most vulnerable and health services’ capacity. Organisations of all sizes will also need to make some tough trade-offs, but should do so whilst being clear what their overarching goal is.

>> The full 1 hour webinar recording is available here. (Free to our full members, £20 for basic members) It includes for more information on the models mentioned in this article, tips on effective decision-making frameworks and strategies maximise the quality of your learning in reviews of decisions. Julie and Malcolm also touch on how to take people with you and the role that Non-Executives should play in this context.

>> Following the success of this webinar, Broadreach Consulting have developed a series of six webinars: 'Leading through the Covid-19 crisis'.

You can also find out more about our leadership programme delivered by Julie and Malcolm, Getting to the C-Suite.