4 Ways Forward When There is No Map

​ The coronavirus pandemic has generated tremendous uncertainty for businesses. But while the scale of the crisis is new, uncertainty itself is not—it’s a natural condition of doing business, and numerous tools exist to quantify and mitigate it.

 Most strategies rely on accumulated knowledge from the past—there’s a precedent on which to make sense of unknowns. COVID-19 breaks all that.

There is no precedent for how to respond to this moment, much less steer ahead.

 The biggest challenge to businesses right now isn’t uncertainty, but ambiguity—a condition in which the future is unclear, the past is no help, and we don’t even know what we don’t know. There’s no predicting when the pandemic will end, nor what “business as usual” will look like when it does.

Understanding that organizations are facing a broad range of challenges and have varying capacities, the question becomes, how might businesses create new ways to push ahead intelligently?

Being exceedingly human can offer leaders an alternate set of mindsets and methods for navigating ambiguity.

Here are four ways forward, along with inspiring examples and questions to drive action.

Read about the crisis no one saw coming.

Lead with people, and the business will follow.

Perhaps the most well-known design thinking model suggests that innovation occurs at the intersection of what the consumer wants, business viability, and technical feasibility. Many leaders are mired in thinking about what’s possible in this new world (technical feasibility) and what the economic impact of COVID-19 might be (business viability). While a pivot of your business model may be critical to staying afloat, it’s essential not to forget to lead with people.

Focusing on customers’ needs is a way to rally a company and employees around a purposeful cause.

It also offers focus and clarity operationally and strategically and points to a clear path forward that can deliver value. 

Questions to inspire action: 

  • How are our core customers’ needs changing right now? How can we deliver on those needs during the pandemic?
  • Who can we learn from in our organization that is closest to the needs of our people, partners, and consumers? Better yet, how might we engage with our people, partners, and consumers directly to learn from them?


Forge unexpected partnerships

Read  more about partnering up with your boss

Part of what makes the current changes, so complex is their scale.

It’s inspiring to see examples of companies redirecting their capabilities toward urgent needs—distilleries using their alcohol to produce hand sanitizer, automakers shifting to produce ventilators and respirators. But this kind of quick adaptation isn’t simple, and the opportunity isn’t always clear. Stepping outside of our domains and even our companies to connect can help. 

Pivoting calls for processing viewpoints from different departments and types of thinkers. Some companies are relying on open innovation, which can be used internally to break down silos, or externally to find new partners to bring ideas to life.

Leaders need to challenge their humility and courage and open up to anyone involved in business to work together to find partners, develop new offerings, and secure funding. 

Questions to inspire action: 

  • What points of view are we missing on our team, and how might they help us uncover opportunities and identify blind spots? 
  • Who can we partner with right now to deliver something unique or previously impossible to our teams, business, or society?


Experiment today to strengthen the business for tomorrow 


The time has never been better to experiment. This means considering fundamental changes in business and operating models out of necessity, while also prototyping new channels, offerings, pricing structures, and value propositions. 

Experimenting doesn’t have to result in a full-scale business model transformation or a polished new offering. This is a moment of extreme leniency: Customers will forgive scrappiness and even mistakes, and they’ll appreciate effort and vulnerability from organizations that try. Moreover, experimenting in low-fidelity ways allows teams to iterate, minimize costs, and preserve optionality quickly. In other words, there’s little investment required for a potentially high return.

Read about driving innovation through curiosity.

Questions to inspire action: 

  • If we’re in an all-hands-on-deck moment, is there a group of employees that can start to think about how we might operate differently during COVID-19?
  • What are simple experiments we could run in the next few days?
  • If we’re able to dedicate time and resources, how might we use this moment to challenge the fundamental assumptions of our business and industry?
  • What are the simple experiments we could run in the next few weeks?


Leverage scarcity 

It’s understandable to feel an overall sense of scarcity right now.

Organizations are inundated with legal, health, social, and operating constraints. It may seem counterintuitive, but limitations often create generative circumstances for growth and innovation. A recent study on innovation in crisis found that during the Great Depression. At the same time, the total number of patents decreased, but the average level of quality increased, which increased the overall impact of the innovation.

Questions to inspire action: 

  • How might we turn these new constraints into the cornerstones of our business?
  • What is the core promise or value we provide to customers?
  • How might we repurpose the assets that we still have to keep delivering on this promise or value?

 Please read about my biggest business mistake

Final Thoughts

We are in challenging times.

Leaders are called to make difficult decisions about strategy, operations, and people.

As we continue to navigate these uncharted waters, we can find ways for ambiguity to be an aid rather than an impediment to progress.

Human led mindsets like empathy, collaboration, experimentation, and even scarcity can be guiding lights along the way.