Now & Not Now: Decision-Making & Decisive Leadership in Uncertain Times


Now & Not Now: Decision-Making & Decisive Leadership in Uncertain Times

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One of my former coaching clients contacted me earlier this week looking for direction. Now I’ve had several clients over the years share with me during our coaching programs that they regularly find themselves wondering “W.W.J.D.?” When my first client shared that acronym for “What Would Jeremy Do?” with me, I laughed. Since then, I’ve simply come to appreciate that my role as an executive coach is to shift my clients’ thinking with new insights and ideas whether I’m there by their sides or not.

This one was different though. I haven’t coached this leader for several years, and he’s now CEO of a completely different organization. These are unprecedented times though, so I probably shouldn’t be surprised that even he’s looking for some outside perspective on how best to make decisions with all of the uncertainty around Coronavirus. He was in the process of drafting communications about their future plans for his key customers, and as he put it, “No one really knows what October is going to look like!”

The guidance he needed comes from the distinction between “Now” and “Not Now”. You might think you know what “now” means. Sure, it’s right now. If you’re open to it, now can mean so much more than that though. Now serves as a powerful way of classifying anything that exists and is already being managed, whether it’s in this very moment or something for which we’ve already planned. Now, I’m writing an article about decisive leadership. I’m also handling several other things now though.

For example, the webinar that I’m leading next Friday on high-performing virtual teams is “now” because it exists on my calendar and is in my intentions. I already have a plan to prepare for, promote, and ultimately facilitate the session. Using the same distinction, my working vacation to Vail this August also exists now – again because it’s in my calendar, and I already made all of the necessary travel arrangements to secure the trip. I’m really looking forward to it, assuming we can travel by then, but I haven’t packed my bags yet. I’ll do that “not now”.

Not now represents activities or ideas that we’ve considered but have yet to create structures to support them. I tend to pack for trips the night before, so packing will exist – perhaps in my calendar, more likely in my mind – closer to August 19th before we leave. That is a low-stress, routine activity for me, so I don’t need to have a more formal plan in place right now. I can get to it “not now” when it becomes timely.

That goes for other activities and decisions too. I’ll figure out what I’m having for dinner next Thursday not now. I’ll decide what I want to write and present about next month not now. Anything that is really important or takes up a lot of mental energy really needs to exist now.

When it comes to decision-making, the distinction here is recognizing we know what we know, and we don’t know what we don’t. It’s challenging for weather forecasters to predict the weather. Any savvy investor knows that the way Apple’s stock performed yesterday is not necessarily an indicator for what it will do tomorrow, or the day after that. Using this same logic, it’s difficult for many business leaders to make decisions today given the incredible uncertainty that exists in our markets and the world around us. As my client said, “No one really knows what October is going to look like!”

So how do we make decisions today when tomorrow is so uncertain? The first step is simply recognizing and accepting we have to do something. Sticking our heads in the sand and hoping this will all blow past us is not likely to produce our intended results. Once we choose to move forward, we then need to gather and consider any available data – whether formal or anecdotal, based on direct experiences or perceived market needs. With this assessment complete, we must be confident in our choices to proceed one way or another and lean into the mantra to “Fail fast” while continually monitoring the situation.

As we produce near-term results, we may choose to stay the course or try a different tack. As new information becomes available, we may need to reassess and completely change course, altering our initial plans. That shouldn’t prevent us from taking action today though. What we can do now is choose a path based on what we do know and what information is currently available to us. We need to be certain to put systems in place to monitor the initial results of our choices and revisit those decisions as needed. These check-ins can still exist “now” – as in we can put daily, weekly, or perhaps quarterly reviews on our calendars and with our teams – to maintain control and evaluate the impact of our current choices in the future.

That additional information and greater clarity about the future we wish we had simply doesn’t exist right now. It may not exist for weeks or months, so don’t just sit there waiting to act. Be decisive based on what you do know now. Be confident in what you do choose to do now. Just be sure you also put the additional monitoring and performance evaluation systems in place to drive enhanced decision-making in the future as the situation and information available to you changes.

Do you feel lost at sea in a rudderless ship right now? Need some help refocusing your team and making some strategic choices about the future? Give us a call at 310.589.4610 or email us for some additional insights on how best to lead your team during this uncertain time. You can also visit the Executive Coaching page of our website for more on how we regularly enable our clients to build leadership capacity and improve performance across their organizations.

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