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5 proactive ways adaptive organisations will respond to Brexit.

If you’re a leader whose organisation is likely to be impacted by Brexit, here are five strategies you can apply immediately.

Have you ever noticed how we sometimes erroneously believe having answers will give us ‘certainty’? In terms of Brexit…we now have our decision. Britain is leaving the European Union and whether it’s good, bad or in-between is something only time will tell. However, as is so often the case with mega change, while one question has now been answered it has created an equally unsettling suite of new questions, such as:


  • What does it mean?

  • What’s going to change?

  • What happens now?

  • When?


Whether you're a leader in Europe, Britain or elsewhere, the chances are you already have a physical sense of discomfort lurking in the pit of your stomach. In fact, right now there are literally thousands of questions firing rapidly in the minds of your customers, employees, in Boardroom discussions and in the broader community in which your organisation operates.


Within a non-adaptive organisation, the impact of a significant change like Brexit can be an overall sense of helplessness and belief that ‘it’s all out of our control’. This can lead to a position of ‘all we can do is wait and see’ which results in leaders becoming reluctant to make decisions and consequently, responsiveness slows to a snail's pace.


However, this is not what happens in an adaptive organisation. When a change like Brexit comes along, it’s leaders proactively respond and leverage the opportunity the change represents by doing the following five things. They:


  1. lead even though they don’t have the answers

  2. seek to understand the change and proactively embrace it

  3. focus obsessively on customer-value creation

  4. establish a unified approach from the beginning

  5. harness anxiety and put it to work


So let’s explore each of these in detail.

1. They lead even when they don’t have the answers

During times of turbulence and uncertainty people look to their leaders for guidance and reassurance. However, leading when you don’t have all the answers can be tough, which is why some organisations prefer to wait for more certainty before doing anything.


Within an adaptive organisation however, leaders will have been preparing in advance for the possible ‘exit’ vote and have a clear communication strategy in place, ready to go. The messages will be authentic, present a consistent view of the situation and acknowledge the uncertainty people are likely to be feeling. They will also explain what the organisation is going to do in the short-term (without making unrealistic promises), explain what their people should do now and when they can expect to hear more.


In less adaptive organisations, after the Brexit referendum, leaders will enter their workplace and carry on as though nothing has happened. They’ll have individual conversations and share very different messages about ‘what it all means’ and by the end of the week, the uncertainty and confusion will have multiplied. While the organisation might then decide to communicate something, it will now be competing against all the ‘opinions’ that have become firmly lodged in people’s minds.


2. They understand the change and proactively embrace it

An adaptive organisation takes the time to objectively appreciate the nature of the change from multiple perspectives (i.e. customer? workforce? political? social? etc) and never...ever...hits the ‘panic’ button.


Embracing the change also means resisting the urge to conclude it’s all negative. I can say from experience, the negative aspects of a change like Brexit usually stand out a mile off. And while leaders aren’t always aware of it, these first impressions stick and can unconsciously 'blinker' the approach to potential solutions going forward. When evaluating Brexit, leaders in adaptive organisations will recognise this natural human tendency and consciously focus on the opportunities first. They will also encourage people around them to do the same.


3. They focus obsessively on customer-value creation

One of the most challenging things about a change like Brexit is its multi-layered complexity. It’s like a box full of wire coat-hangers - you never quite know what you’ll get when you pull one out. Understanding how value is created for customers gives an organisation a head-start when evaluating complex change, determining it’s relevance and assessing potential impacts. I call this understanding The Vital Thread and it provides a benchmark against which to consider further information as it becomes available. This in turn makes decisions easier, helps with prioritisation and empowers leaders and their teams by providing clearer focus.


Conversely, when leaders lack a collective understanding of how their organisation (and its business model) creates value for customers, they have no shared basis upon which to ensure  value is being protected. As a consequence, a change can undermine a fundamental reason customers have for choosing your products without the organisation knowing about it. This means it is less clear when value is under threat and leaders spend more time trying to get on the same page(ie. trying to understand what it all means) and less time actually doing something about it.


4. They establish a unified approach from the beginning

When a big change lands in our lap the natural instinct is to evaluate it from our own perspective: How will it impact what we do, how we do it and when? In organisations across the UK and Europe this is exactly what will be happening as people turn up for work after the Brexit vote.


When this happens, adaptive organisations will ensure the opportunities and challenges are approached collaboratively with the organisation adopting an holistic approach. They will engage their people early and move the conversation beyond the Executive Team to others who can build organisational insights and understanding.


A less adaptive organisation might wait until much later (when there is more certainty) to promote a 'unified-position'. By the time this happens, each of the organisational functions (Finance, Marketing, Sales, HR etc) are likely to have established their own view of the situation and thus, their own solution. Thus, when the time comes to act as a 'whole', these (now ingrained) functional approaches will make a compromised, less customer-focused solution, more likely and contribute to a sub-optimal outcome.


5. They harness anxiety and put it to work

One of the factors that causes significant stress during organisational change is the fear 'management doesn't really understand the implications'. While there may not be many answers, one of the ways an adaptive organisation empowers its people is to physically capture the questions needing to be answered. This can be done in many ways - online portals, using forums or in smaller team discussions. Once this is done, the broader population of an organisation can relax knowing their concerns have been heard and someone will do something about them.


From a strategic stand-point, these questions can be used to determine an 'order of things' such that the organisation focuses on the most important questions first and doesn't worry about those for which answers will only come later. In time, these questions can also be placed in a time-line and the answers used as triggers for the organisation to move from a watching-brief to taking action.


So where does this all leave us?


One of the lessons I've learnt over many years leading complex change is that you only get one opportunity to give a change a positive start in life, and the degree to which you do this determines its likely success. Given the potential intensity, size and duration of Brexit, this lesson is particularly relevant.


If you think your organisation is going to be affected, I'd encourage you to ask yourself, what should I be doing now to give Brexit a positive start? Don't wait or it will be too late.


About the author:


Kate Christiansen is an author, business leader and passionate change-advocate who's spent twenty years adapting organisations to major strategic change. Her writing aims to empower leaders by fostering insights, sharing ideas and providing practical strategies to succeed in an ever-changing world. 


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