Adapting to Volatility and Uncertainty

After sheltering in place for more than two months, here is what I’m seeing in the startup landscape: things that would have been slowly eased into over years has been implemented for entire companies overnight. Google and Facebook are planning for staff to work from home through the end of 2020, Twitter will be remote forever, and many companies will likely follow suit. Layoffs, hiring freezes, and salary reductions for senior execs have been common, especially for companies whose revenue and adoption is deeply impacted by the shelter in place orders, though some have taken advantage of the more liquid market for talent.

One of the challenges many companies are facing is how to create remote teamwork that is engaging and effective. One of the most successful formats I’ve seen is a brainstorming session, where the leader sets the stage for the work to be done, splits participants into small team breakout sessions, floats between rooms to answer questions, and returns everyone to the main room, and has someone from each group present resulting ideas at the end. It requires planning, facilitation, and familiarity with online tools, but can be very effective at fostering collaboration & exchange of ideas. I’ll be curious to see what new VR tools emerge that might feel more like sitting around a dining room table working side by side. Berkeley students staged their graduation in Minecraft, travelling to virtual locations to exercise has been holding my attention surprisingly well in Oculus SuperNatural, and Bevy (from the folks who created Startup Grind) is gaining traction in hosting online conferences. Stay tuned, it’s early days still.

Leaders are recognizing that we are living through a time of extreme volatility, uncertainty, complexity and ambiguity (VUCA). David Peterson, PhD, Director of Executive Coaching & Leadership at Google, writes about this. To prepare for VUCA, he advises exploring alternative scenarios, thinking like a competitor, making time for reflection, and exposing yourself to thinking different from your own. In a crisis, he suggests clarifying your mission, vision & values, building your organization’s capacity to act decisively and adapt quickly, and regularly reflecting on your learning.

Is rapid change the new normal? The last few months have required openness to new ideas, ways of working, lines of business, product ideas, more rapid collaboration, and shifting team configurations. Many coaching conversations explore pros and cons of different options, talking about how to assess and mitigate risk. At the moment, the “stay the course” scenarios are often more risky than making dramatic changes – itself a dramatic change.

One of my favorite stories of  a ‘change or die” scenario is that of Alinea Group, a three-Michelin star Chicago restaurant run by Nick Kokonas & Chef Grant Achatz. Kokonas, who also runs the Tock platform for restaurant reservations used across 30 countries, used to be a derivatives trader. He says, “I was used to looking at big, big pools of data and looking for patterns, and also it really trains you to think, to see the world as it is, not as you wish it were.” They developed 4 different scenarios for the restaurant in early March, then completely pivoted to a carry-out model by March 20th, after watching reservations on Tock plummeting, and recognizing the threat to their business. They sold 500 carry-out meals of Beef Wellington in the first evening, and are now booked solid at 1,000 meals per night. Tock (a platform for high-end restaurant reservations) also pivoted to TockToGo within 6 days.

This is an example of a leader seeing initial signs of dramatic change coming, weighing different potential scenarios, assessing their strengths and values, and quickly pivoting to something new. Many leaders I have spoken to have made similar dramatic shifts in their business models, staffing, and ways of working over the past two months. They have been strategically engaged, but also accept the need to take care of themselves and assess their own capacity and that of their teams, as they adapt emotionally to new realities, both personally and professionally.

Adapting to volatility & uncertaintyAs we head into the third month of the pandemic, leaders are becoming more familiar with VUCA conditions – rather than being surprised, they expect ongoing rapid change.

I see a few themes emerging from conversations this month, in addition to all the normal coaching topics:

  1. Assess Changes & Make Adjustments
  2. Handle Mental Fatigue
  3. Tend to your Team

Assess Changes & Make Adjustments

One of the challenges of leading in a VUCA environment is figuring out how often to revise strategic choices. Too frequently, and you whipsaw back and forth, but too seldom, and you end up missing early indicators that you need to make further changes. Many leaders are settling on a monthly cadence to review strategic decisions (and sometimes OKRs), and a weekly cadence to review metrics and make smaller changes. 

In the past week I’ve spoken to leaders who are anticipating making further staff reductions, as well as leaders whose teams are closing new deals after a shift in strategy, and who are considering making a few strategic hires.

Here are some questions you and your team might find useful: 

  • If you shifted strategy, how can you tell if the change was effective? What are the leading & trailing indicators of success or failure, and are they different than before?
  • If you froze hiring, what would make you greenlight your first hires again? How do you assess the risk of loss of momentum vs the risk of overextending financially?
  • If you zoom out to 2021 and 2025, how might these decisions look in retrospect?

Handle Mental Fatigue

Some leaders are doing well at re-calibrating to this new environment, both in terms of managing changing priorities, and managing their own emotions and stress. Others are experiencing extreme Zoom fatigue, or have reverted to a go-faster-do-more strategy. Though the initial crisis may have been a sprint, we are in this for the long haul. Consider these questions for yourself, and talk about them with your staff.

  • How will you structure self-care, time off, and ways of disconnecting? 
  • How do you think of time off and vacation, when travel isn’t likely very soon?
  • How have the changes in your household affected you? What support do you need? 
  • If your life was like this for a year, what would you need to change to make it work?
  • If you’re experiencing fatigue by being on endless video calls, what experiments can you try to switch things up? How will you assess what works for you?
  • The goal is not to force yourself to do something exceptional during shelter in place (for most this is cruel and unrealistic), but rather to reflect on what is working and what is not, and making small adaptive changes. 

Tend to Your Team

Now that leaders have responded to the immediate crisis, many are stepping back to assess how effective each member of their team is given the new circumstances. How are people doing in new roles, or with reduced teams (review effects of changes at 30/60/90 days). One leader was grumbling about someone on their team being short tempered, then reflected that he’d lost half his team a month ago, and decided to ask how he was doing with the changes. Many leaders are struggling, trying to hold it together for their work and their families, and judging themselves for not achieving everything as quickly as they could before all this. This time can be especially challenging for high performers who are used to doing everything exceptionally well.

For each person on your team:

  • How are they doing?
  • What has changed for them, both personally and professionally?
  • What support might they need to be successful now?
  • What feedback would be helpful to them in their current circumstances?
  • How can you support them in making needed changes & measuring progress together?

What will your team look like in 2021, and how will you get there? Are there any large gaps in experience or skill that you’ll need to close, especially if you anticipate additional funding rounds or significant business growth? Several leaders I work with are beginning to have conversations with people on their teams about hiring above them. Companies who have the flexibility to hire are scooping up great talent.


Everyone in a current leadership role is getting real world practice in how to deal with VUCA. For most of us, it’s not been easy. The best leaders will emerge more responsive and resilient, and that lesson will serve them well for years to come.

One way we help growing teams make great decisions

Thanks to First Round Capital and to one of Marcy’s clients who describe one of the frameworks we’ve used repeatedly during ten years of coaching startup founders (and that we use in our own lives). We both teach clients how to use it and have used it when facilitating offsites or strategy meetings to help everyone involved shift away from fears and scarcity to find more powerful and creative solutions to complex or seemingly unsolvable problems.

If you don’t already regularly read the First Round Review, make sure you do. Their posts are consistently valuable and high quality.

From Gil Shklarski, CTO at Flatiron Health: This Matrix Helps Growing Teams Make Great Decisions.

Credit for the original idea goes to Barry Johnson and his 1992 book
Polarity Management: Identifying and Managing Unsolvable Problems.

We hope you find this helpful. As always, we welcome any of your questions or stories of where it has worked (or hasn’t), as well as what other frameworks you’ve found helpful!

3 Ways to Grow your Happiness in Meetings

(This is excerpted from my talk at on Sept 30, 2016.  View slide deck! Calibrate 2016: How to Grow Your Happiness In Meetings

If you’re interested in a class on engineering leadership, click here!

As a leader, you’ll be both hosting and going to a lots of meetings. If it’s something you get great at, it will have a huge impact on both your happiness, and the happiness of those you work with.

Here’s what I’m going to be covering in this blog post:

  1. plan for success
  2. create psychological safety
  3. ask for feedback on facilitation

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Inner Game of the Startup CEO: mastering the secret challenges no one talks about (SxSW 2014)

Elite athletes must focus on more than physical training to win. Startup CEOs also have an inner game to master on the way to success.

The many hidden challenges to being a startup CEO aren’t talked about enough.

Among other things, you face repeated rejection; suffer failures small and large; complete overwhelm; deep self-doubt (if not outright depression); face seemingly impossible dilemmas, decisions and circumstances; and struggle with difficult relationships. At times you feel completely alone, like you’re the only one with these problems, and that there is no one you can talk to. You ask more than once, “am I crazy, or is this normal?”


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Why startup teams resist hiring a new leader, and what to do about it

angry mob

I’ve run across this situation with startup CxO coaching clients three times in the past week, so it felt like a good time to write about it…

Here is the scenario: You realize that you need to hire a more experienced leader for an existing team, and there is lots of resistance to making the hire: the team doesn’t see the value in bringing on someone more senior, they think it will ruin their existing freewheeling culture, or they are confused that you want to replace a leader who is well-liked (but not performing well).

Here is the deal: they often don’t know what a great leader would look, sound, or feel like, or what they would contribute to the team. Early hires tolerate uncertainty & chaos well, and value a lack of structure. To them, you are “ruining” a great thing. They have heard (or lived) the horror stories of bad managers, so they value strong individual contributors who can organize people around them reasonably well, and who primarily represent the core values & beliefs of the team. You, on the other hand, are looking for a solid people manager who will provide some more structure, accountability, & mentoring, who will contribute to a broader strategy and to the exec team, can act more autonomously, and who will balance the demands of the business with the needs of the team.

You’ve announced that the hire is underway, you’ve written a job description, and you’re bringing in candidates. The team interviews possible leaders, and because they can’t actually envision what a more skilled/senior leader would look like, they screen for what they would look for in a peer (ability to do the hands-on job of senior individual contributor is usually what they look for), and overlook the qualities that would make them a great leader: people skills, ability to lead a team in making a decision, planning, accountability, and collaboration with peers to solve complex company-wide problems. The post-interview meetings devolve into arguments about what you’re looking for, and you start questioning your sanity, especially if you haven’t hired for this role before. You feel like you’re totally wasting your time talking to the team that’s arguing about this, and you wonder if the drama will ever end…

The assumption that most drives people nuts about this one is that they dearly want it to be a collaborative process; they value getting the input & buy-in from those around them, and they can’t understand why the team won’t fall in line and help with the hire.

I can think of at least two paths to follow, both with pros and cons…

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