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Leading Through Complexity
How do ensure good decision making?
The wind bounced our car up and down. My hands gripped the door handle like I was on a roller coaster. Next to me, my husband sat, hands clamped on the steering wheel despite being parked. Beside him, the wind howled through the splintered driver’s side window. Rocks and sand pelted the car. In the back seat, his best friend grimaced, grasping her phone in her hand. The massive SUV to the right of me bounced around like a kid playing with a Tonka truck. Nearly every car around us had shattered windows. The wind at the nearest weather station measured gusts of 112 miles per hour.
The road closed on both sides of us indefinitely, we sat in a parking lot outside a closed cafe, waiting for the wind to stop. An hour in, a ranger came by to check on the people huddled in cars. I asked whether we should drive back to where we came from if it was safer to seek shelter there.
“Who can know?” He replied before rolling up his window and driving away.
We all stared at each other.
Did he really just say that? What should we do? Should we try to stick it out in our current location? Should we try to go back, hoping we could make it through the windy gauntlet to a place with more shelter? If we stayed, our car might sustain more damage. We might be stuck for hours without food or bathroom facilities. Our electric car might run out of battery. If we got back on the road seeking shelter, we risked completely shattering the window or perhaps even rolling over. There were no easy answers.
We decided to stick it out where we were.
We sat in the car afraid to even go to the bathroom outside for fear of being blown away. Conserving our resources, we didn’t eat or drink much. We had no idea when the wind would stop. Finally, after four hours, we got the all-clear. As we drove back to our hotel, we saw a crumpled camper van perpendicular to the road. It looked like it had been picked up and thrown back down by an angry giant. A bit further down a large camper van lay on its side. Then we saw a part of the road missing. We arrived at our hotel breathing heavily, our legs shaking as we made our way safely inside.
Later we learned there were injuries in both cars we saw overturned — two passengers were injured, one was airlifted to the hospital. The news told us that we’d been stuck in the heart of a freak spring wind storm with gusts of over 100 mph. According to the Saffir-Simpson hurricane wind scale, we’d endured a category two storm. We had ridden it out in the kind of winds that cause extensive damage like uprooted trees and damage to homes — and we did it while sitting in a car.
You may be wondering how we found ourselves in the heart of a windstorm with no shelter in sight. That morning we were scheduled to tour the lagoon of a beautiful blue glacier on a zodiac boat. We’d heard there might be a storm on the southern coast.
The weather app said there might be moderate gusts up to 30 mph. The tour operators hadn’t canceled so we figured it was safe to venture out for the tour. The hotel staff had told us the wind would be worse later in the day. We reasoned our early start meant we’d be safely back at the hotel well before the winds got bad.
We’d assembled information. We thought we’d made a good decision.
Hundreds of cars packed into the parking lot of the blue glacier lagoon confirmed it. Surely if we were in danger there wouldn’t be so many others there too. The wind was low at the lagoon as we marveled at the blue ice and snapped photos. Mindful that conditions might worsen, we headed back after a short while.
That’s how we found ourselves eight minutes from our hotel having to turn back because the road was closed due to extreme wind gusts. Looking for shelter, we came upon a restaurant with a large parking lot joining others hunkering down. The road closed on either side of us, there was nowhere to go. We wondered if we were lucky or unlucky. If we’d made good decisions or bad ones.
My extreme wind experience reminds me of the environments leaders operate in. Uncertainty and unpredictability are a regular part of business life, especially in our current macroeconomic environment. This means we have to peer around blind corners. We find ourselves in unfamiliar situations. Not knowing what to expect, we follow signals from others. Conditions change rapidly. We gather information. We think we’re looking at the right data. Then, we have to interpret it correctly. In our case, the weather app was in meters per second rather than miles per hour. We didn’t notice this unexpected unit of measure until it was too late.
Developing sound strategy and executing on isn’t as easy as it seems.
Though skill plays a role, we can’t ignore the role of luck. We later discovered that friends who left later got lucky by finding an open cafe to ride out the storm in safer and less harrowing conditions on the other side of the road closure. We also found ourselves outside of a cafe but one was that closed meaning we had to ride out the storm in our car.
In the Silicon Valley Bank (SVB) situation earlier this year, some leaders got lucky in getting their money out while others didn’t see it coming or weren’t able to act fast enough. We might argue that folks should have seen it coming. They should have diversified their funds. This might be true, but the landscape these leaders operate in is complex. Banking at SVB was pretty much a requirement for these startups. Others followed the crowd, trusting that it was safe. Leaders who missed the signals were likely focused on critical issues as they tried to survive an unpredictable market.
Leadership means navigating complexity.
It’s easy to look back at decisions leaders make and cast them as ill-advised. When it comes to decision making in complex environments there are often few easy answers. Unpredictability, lack of clear data, being in unfamiliar terrain, and luck make strategic planning challenging.
We can gather as much information as possible, especially from a variety of folks across the company. We can develop models to guide us and rubrics to help us know if we’re on course or not. We can get clear about what we’re optimizing for. All of these can help. Most importantly, we have to accept that we won’t always get it right. We will make bad calls or even questionable ones. That’s the journey of leadership.
Many thanks to Lar Van Der Jagt for his contributions to this edition and for staying calm in the midst of an intense, adrenaline-soaked experience.
PODCAST EPISODE OF THE WEEK
This week I spoke with Kainar Kamalov, co-founder and CTO of Kyo Health. We spoke about what it’s like to lead at a remote-first scaling startup during his time as Director of Engineering at Pipe. While many companies are looking to get back into the office, it seems that being remote at least part of the time is here to stay. During our conversation we talked about how to be intentional with your culture, communicating in a remote-first culture, and how to make sure the team stays aligned. We talked about something many of us probably wonder about — picking up on and handling emotions when we aren’t in the same room.
Here’s a small snippet from our conversation.
You can read my conversation with Kainar here.
As always, thank you for your support of this substack and the leaders featured! You can read all of the past interviews and learn more about how Constellary supports companies and leaders here.
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