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Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 24 September 2018

Workplace Doctor: Moving targets are hard to hit

Increasing reality for most managers having to work with constantly changing goalposts

It can be difficult to maintain momentum when targets are constantly shifting. Nicky Loh / Bloomberg
It can be difficult to maintain momentum when targets are constantly shifting. Nicky Loh / Bloomberg

I work for a financial services company and we have recently been given a number of targets as part of a project being administered by an external unit. However, it is proving almost impossible to fulfil our remit as the goalposts are constantly being changed. As soon as I get to seeing a solution, or a way to achieve the set objectives, the goalposts move and I have to re-think and re-plan. This is immensely frustrating and is straining good the relationship I have with my team, not to mention the external unit setting the goals. How can I resolve this?

BD Al Ain

What you are describing is an increasing reality for most managers and leaders today who, as in your situation, are having to work with constantly changing goalposts and expectations. It is important therefore to explore how you can begin to operate successfully within this context, as the trend towards rapid change and ambiguity is destined to not only continue, but to amplify.

The US military have devised a nomenclature called "Vuca", which stands for Volatile, Uncertain, Complex and Ambiguous in order to describe this phenomenon that we are having to increasingly manage within. To add to the challenge, the competitive environment within the UAE’s financial services sector is intense, with aggressive targets being set, raising the need to do more with less, and to be agile in order to win - agility being one of the key leadership capabilities today.

Most managers and leaders are comfortable operating in environments of high certainty and predictability and as a result, try to revert back to what they know and what has worked in the past. While this is understandable, seeing that few are motivated by uncertainty and chaos, this "pull" towards certainty seldom solves their problems or new challenges. Furthermore, there are few rewards today for those leaders who can only repeat outdated solutions.

So what are the alternatives?

With little control over the level of change and uncertainty today, it is best to get comfortable with being uncomfortable. Leading with this new level of complexity, requires leaders to be able to think along multiple dimensions and relationships while being tolerant to contradictions and ambiguity. Today’s agile leader needs to actively engage with the ambiguity, by being flexible enough to make adjustments to fit the reality of the situation and to provide vision and direction toward the new goal. This essential ability to improvise requires leaders to become more spontaneous and adaptive, embrace change quickly and to look for new emerging opportunities.

Your team will certainly look to you when things get difficult, so seeing that you accept the challenges and that your attitude reflects this, will be re-assuring and ensure their engagement. Communication and transparency are therefore essential, so be sure to share the changes, plans and milestones with team members to keep them informed and up to date. When frustrations do surface, it is best to acknowledge and manage these effectively, getting the team back on track as soon as possible. Asking questions and inviting ideas that stimulate different perspectives to challenge the status quo, will drive innovative solutions that produce new and novel outcomes.

It sounds like you have several internal and external stakeholders to consider. Identifying their level of influence and importance will help you to assess how you can best manage them. When goalposts get moved, think about what influence you may have over that and what specifically you would like to be considered, having the confidence to have clear and considered dialogues with all stakeholders concerned. Make sure you are well prepared and understand the changing needs of the project so that you can best suggest solutions and fulfil what is needed. That said, the greater the rate of change and uncertainty, the higher the propensity that mistakes may happen, so start small so that you can recover quickly and encourage feedback so that you can use these lessons for future challenges.

Doctors prescription

As none of us are at our best when we are stressed, anxious or frustrated, your attitude will determine how your team functions under these conditions. Recognise the resources you need for yourself in order to be more flexible and comfortable within a changing environment, so you can set an example for your team and drive this to a successful outcome.

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