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Decision-making in uncertain times


How do leaders approach decision-making when the challenges they face seem so intractable and the context so uncertain? Thinking clearly, acting wisely, and staying healthy must be goals for anyone leading anything at the moment, but complex and uncertain times can make these goals hugely challenging to realise.

In this context how leaders understand the problems they face can be a big part of their leadership challenge and, often, a big part of the problem too. There are many different ways to approach decision-making, but one helpful problem-solving typology is that developed by Sholom Glouberman and Brenda Zimmerman (2002), which emerged from their work on reform in the Canadian health care system. They suggest there are three kinds of problem that can be categorised as simple, complicated and complex in nature. And in light of the pandemic we might also add a fourth, chaotic, to their list.

Table showing simple, complicated, complex and chaotic decision-making

In contexts of uncertainty we are too often seduced by the sophistication of models, theories, and language for complicated problems. There is a very human need to reach for those solutions that offer the comfort of control, certainty and order where there may be none, and there are cultural assumptions about ‘heroic’ leadership that aren’t helpful in this context. But in reaching for ‘rocket’ like solutions we misread the complex nature of the problems we face and take unwise action that is ineffective at best, and, at worst, can add to the complexity of our situation. The consequences of this are personal as well as practical, as our health and wellbeing suffer when the solutions we attempt to impose fall short, create more problems, and contribute to uncertainty. In this scenario, the only outcome that is guaranteed – for all involved – is greater stress.

Effective decision-making in contexts of uncertainty means slowing down and deepening our awareness of the kinds of problems we face. And it often means letting go; of old habits, tried and tested answers, and the idea that it is always the role of leaders to supply answers and certainty. Instead, when we don’t have answers, effective decision-making rests on our willingness to be curious and ability to inquire, ask the right questions, listen, experiment, notice, and learn.

Leading through Covid-19

Short resources and shared experiences to offer some help in supporting leaders working in the NHS, social care, public health, local authorities and the voluntary and independent sector.

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