This post is inspired by some pictures* in Mike Rother’s book “Toyota Kata”, very relevant in our actual changing times and complex situations. I really like the figures that remind that the journey towards a goal requires entering unclear territory at some point.
Experience from the military tells that no plan, regardless how carefully it was planned, will survive contact with the enemy.
No plan survives contact with the enemy.
Helmuth von Moltke
What this means is that unknown facts, unexpected events and dynamic complex interrelated relationships will interfere with the plan based on partial knowledge, biased perception and simplified hypotheses.
Plans are important because they allow to explore hypotheses and be prepared accordingly but most plans are useless as reality often unfolds differently as expected.
This is why, when starting a journey toward a significant change or a Lean transformation for example, the plan will probably last only for the few first steps, but barely further. Once the journey started, unexpected circumstances will reveal themselves and require adjustment.
This is similar to exploring a dark room with a flashlight**. Only a part of the room is visible and every move is done accordingly to visibility and noticed obstacles. As one moves forward the line of sight extends and the vision clears further one step at a time. New obstacles appear, requiring new adjustment, and so on. The path across the dark room is probably not straight, but must get past several obstacles.
The same happens while hiking. The goal is set, the map shows the terrain and the compass helps for the bearing. Yet the map may show the canyon, the river and the forest, but none of the boulders, the fallen trees across the path neither the recently flooded areas. Those obstacles will appear once the hikers come close. In this case too, the hikers have to adjust to circumstances and find alternate routes to reach their goal. The one they had in mind while planning the hike is no more relevant.
Leaders must be able to lead through unclear territories
Unclear territories of all sorts are more and more common. Even what we believed familiar ground can be disrupted overnight. Everything is going “VUCA”, meaning being increasingly Volatile, Uncertain, Complex and Ambiguous. More decisions must be taken, more frequently and often with incomplete data and only partial understanding of the situation.
Among all decisions, some – and hopefully few – will show unadapted, requiring new adjustments. Wandering in unclear territories is a new fate. Being able to make quick and good decisions in unclear territories is a necessary aptitude for aspiring leaders.
What are good decisions? Those enabling the organization to achieve its goal despite the obstacles and unexpected difficulties, those solving the problems to clear the way towards the goal or choosing alternate routes to get closer to the goal.
Therefore, having a clear Goal onto which aligning actions, projects and initiatives when going through unclear territory is mandatory.
Followers too must understand “unclear territories”
Unclear territory is not a concept for leaders only, the followers must understand it too. What does it mean? It means that once entering unclear territories:
- leaders (managers, people in charge…) may get surprised by unexpected events and this does not make them bad leaders
- leaders, managers, etc. don’t have all the answers to all difficulties and problems that arise along the journey
- plans and projects sometimes have to be reoriented, which may look like poor management or a fantasy but isn’t
- some invested efforts and actions must be abandoned due to new circumstances, it’s disappointing, but that’s life
One may wonder how to distinguish poor leadership from the necessities to adapt to new circumstances? I would suggest to prevent the question from arising by establishing a clear communication upfront, giving frequent and transparent updates and have everyone exploring the unclear territory by teamwork.
*Mike Rother “Toyota Kata: Managing People For Improvement, Adaptiveness, and Superior Results”, McGraw-Hill Professional, 2010. Pictures mentioned are page 8; 120; 124; 133; 163
**Flashlight metaphor, page 133