5 steps to managing uncertainty

‘Managing uncertainty’ is a recurring and challenging aspect of leadership. Following his presentation at our recent governance conference, we asked Garry Honey of Better Boards, to summarise his 5-steps approach for governing bodies.

Uncertainty is a challenge for management boards and governing bodies within higher education

Acronyms like TUNA (turbulent-uncertain-novel-ambiguous) or VUCA (volatile, uncertain, complex, ambiguous) have been used to qualify new turbulent or volatile environments in which decisions need to be made. It is no coincidence that the key words ‘uncertainty’ and ‘ambiguity’ occur in both acronyms. The question we try to answer is – how should higher education leaders manage uncertainty to best advantage?

A governing body has a distinctly different role from a management board, yet there are some aspects shared by both. The most significant is having a vision of the future and making decisions around strategy and risk within the context of an environment containing uncertainty. Managing uncertainty is a leadership challenge.

An active approach

The first step towards managing uncertainty is to adopt an active approach to reducing risk which involves rejecting the traditional risk matrix based on probability and impact. This standard approach to risk management can be worse than useless as it can lead to misplaced confidence that all risks are known and understood; it ignores the fact that problems for organisations generally have multiple causes rather than a single risk event. The approach also leads managers and boards to ignore risks which they think will have a low probability but which could have a disastrous result. Instead, re-profile risk based on different axes: ease of control and ease of prediction. This will enable the leadership to actively reduce risk, and determine specific actions to improve control or prediction – a real benefit.

What’s on the risk register?

The second step is to separate risk, which can be estimated and assessed, from uncertainty which is simply unknown. Many risk registers conflate the two yet there is a growing realisation that a separation can be helpful. It is a matter of determining whether there is sufficient information to determine an outcome, where there is not there is uncertainty. The risk register should focus on outcomes which can be measured, the remainder being uncertainties.

Four types of uncertainty

The third step is to appreciate the four different types of uncertainty ranging from known-knowns to unknown-unknowns. The distinction between known-unknowns (jigsaw-type) and unknown-knowns (library-type) is most critical as correct labelling will determine the most suitable response. In each case information needs to be gathered but the method and location will be different.

Setting up coping mechanisms

The fourth step is the coping mechanism to deal with different types of uncertainty and the resources required to secure and act on it. This is where the governing body needs to work with the management board to calculate the cost-benefit of reducing uncertainty, especially where in some cases forecasts and estimates will inevitably be the more prudent option.

Avoid groupthink: be brave

The fifth and final step in managing uncertainty is to eliminate misplaced certainty. This is the human element inherent in cognitive bias and assumptions. This is challenging the conventional wisdom and beliefs that can render a board too complacent for sound judgement: anchoring, referencing, confirmation bias, over optimism, risk aversion, cognitive dissonance and groupthink.

Effective governance and leadership requires collective responsibility, yet a board is comprised of a disparate group of individuals so achieving this can be difficult. Improving board effectiveness is not simply a matter of getting the right people or processes, but of securing the right mind-set around the table. Judgement is the framework in which decisions are made collectively so this needs to be well-informed and free from prejudice. Bravery is needed to challenge some assumptions.

Why is bravery important? Because forecasting the future is rarely accurate, a cynic will say there are only two types of forecast: lucky and wrong! Higher education faces uncertainties about success metrics. Historically measured by research excellence and global ranking, today universities are expected to perform in student satisfaction and alumni employability rankings. Many universities failed to achieve the rankings they expected in TEF, because their priorities are on research excellence and the funding this attracts. The resources for research are not the same as for teaching.

Bravery is also important in the governing body when it comes to defining value to other stakeholders, such as the Treasury or Government. Who in your remuneration committee will challenge a vice-chancellor salary award or suggest that staff morale should be a higher priority? Furthermore, how should a governing body view the recruitment of foreign students to courses because they pay higher fees and represent a lucrative income stream?

The biggest challenge for universities comes in the wake of the NAO report suggesting that the sector as a whole delivers poor value for money. A loan-based system has a very different dynamic to a grant-based one, creating ‘customers’ who decide on the cost-benefit of a university education within the context of their career.  For the next generation student debt repayment could become a burden as big as mortgage repayment for ours. There is uncertainty about the purpose of higher education and hence how value is determined. There are 130 universities in the UK which, as one delegate commented ‘all operate the same strategy’. Is this sustainable?

Garry Honey is the co-founder of Better Boards, leadership advisors on governance and risk issues. He has worked with several universities and leading business schools together with his colleague and co-founder Paul Moxey. Better Boards works with governing bodies and leadership teams to help them implement this five step process to managing uncertainty. 

For more on the Leadership Foundation’s series of programmes and events for those working in governance in higher education, including our new Academic Governance resources visit: www.lfhe.ac.uk/governance

 

Core stability – the journey towards work/life balance

Professor Shân Wareing is pro vice-chancellor for Education and Student Experience at London South Bank University (LSBU) and a professor of Teaching in Higher Education. She recently spoke at Aurora in London and Edinburgh about her personal experience as a senior female leader during Power and Politics. Shân has also recently spoken at Leadership Matters and Preparing for Senior Strategic Leadership. Here, she reflects on her work life balance which formed part of her talk at Aurora this year.

“How we spend our days is how we spend our lives”
(Anne Dillard, quoted in Scott 2003, p80)

Like most people, there are plenty of times I don’t feel I’ve got my work/life balance right, but perhaps strangely, it was worse when I was a lecturer completing my PhD than now when I have three children and more senior job. Along the way, these are some of the ideas and habits that have helped me.

Know your purpose
To work out what balance is right for you, and how to achieve it, you need to be clear about what you want to achieve in life, what your purpose is. In one of my first jobs, a senior colleague had a poster on his wall that said “No one on their death bed wishes they’d spent more time in the office!” and I thought “Hmm, but perhaps I’ll wish I’d achieved more!”  Imagining myself in old age, reflecting on what might cause me to feel pride or regret helped me identify what mattered to me. Being very clear about what is important to you helps you allocate your time and keep things in proportion. That sense of proportion is vital to regulate our emotional response to events at work, which in my experience exact a heavy toll on me if I feel I am living out of alignment with my sense of purpose.

Planning is key
If you know where you’re heading, you can make a plan. And a plan allows you to identify the best opportunities for you, to estimate if you can take on new work without having a melt down, and to prioritise and selectively ignore things.  This is important to protect you from being buffeted by every policy whim, incident, metric, new piece of research, sector panic, and so on. Having a plan helps you spot if you are drawn off your plan too much by fire fighting. I always assume that up to 10% of each day or week will be spent in emergency unplanned reactive activity, but if it starts to increase regularly beyond 10% I need to change my plans to focus more on eliminating the causes of the fire fighting.

The 80:20 Principle
I’ll always have too much work, and probably so will you! In the endless tail of work that is never totally cleared, I have an arbitrary self-imposed cut off point. To minimise the distress of never ticking off everything on my To Do list, the 80:20 principle helps.  If 80% of the benefit comes from 20% of my work and I am fairly sure I’ve done the important 20%, I can go home a bit earlier. Looking at my To Do list regularly from an 80:20 perspective is also important to avoid the feeling that I need to be busy to feel productive. Needing to be busy is the enemy of work/life balance!

Work with and for your team
When the work suddenly piles on, it is easy to feel too busy to talk to people, and I have to fight this instinct! In a management role, and many other roles, people are the job, not an inconvenient extra. The better my team relationships, the more adept my teams are at handling their everyday work and sorting out anything unexpected, which means fewer unpleasant surprises for me. I have found I have a better work/life balance as a manager by talking and listening to my teams. Also working though others is a chance to increase their capability so a win-win for everyone. I could work five hours extra every week but it’s worth a lot less to the university than if I can enable a team of staff to be 10% more productive. To be effective, delegation needs to be in the context of purpose and planning, not random or opportunistic. The better I plan and the higher functioning my teams, the less random rubbish happens, and the earlier we all go home.

Avoid emotional leakage
A lot of stress and unnecessary work comes from emotional leakage – anxiety, fear, hostility, resentment  triggered by projects and people. Work/life balance is not just about what you choose to spend time on, it’s also about how you feel about things. As far as humanly possible it helps not to sink emotion into stuff where it can’t have any positive effect.

Be in the habit of taking care of yourself.
I noticed in pregnancy that what I ate one day had an effect on my mood the next day (protein and vegetables, good; only chocolate all day, bad), and I decided this was probably an exaggerated version of what happens anyway, so I tidied up my eating habits a bit (aiming to avoid chocolate-only days). And I also notice exercise helps my will power.  When I exercise, I’m better able to make myself do stuff I don’t want to do.

Invest in your own growth
Seek out development opportunities that take you in the direction you’re heading.  However experienced and senior you become, you never stop needing to learn. ‘Sharpen the axe’, Stephen Covey calls it.  And to lighten cognitive load (ie fewer things to think about or make decisions about), it really helps to have habits and routines. Barak Obama is reported to have said “You’ll see I wear only gray or blue suits. I’m trying to pare down decisions. I don’t want to make decisions about what I’m eating or wearing. Because I have too many other decisions to make.”

Look for happiness
Another tip from maternity leave and days where it seemed like nothing got done is to remember to pat myself on the back for what I have achieved, not beat myself up for what I haven’t.  Dwelling on what is good about my professional and personal life isn’t about being smug or complacent – it is a necessary exercise in order to sustain optimism for vision and planning.

I still get bad days when it all gets too much, but not so much, and falling back on these principles helps. And for the very impatient readers out there who skimmed to the end, the super-efficient version is: (1) work out what matters to you and do that; and (2) count your blessings.


Further reading
Scott, Susan (2003) Fierce Conversations. London: Piatkus
Covey, Stephen (2004) The 7 habits of highly effective people. London: Simon and Schuster

About Aurora
Aurora is the Leadership Foundation’s women-only leadership development programme. Aurora was created in 2013 in response to our own research that shows that women are under-represented in senior leadership positions and identified actions that could be taken to change this. Since Aurora began in 2013 we have welcomed 3,477 women from 139 universities and sector bodies, with 1029 women attending in 2016-17 alone.

The Aurora Conference- Thursday 7 June 2018
We are delighted to be launching our fourth Aurora conference.

Participants include, but are not limited to:

    • Aurora participants (current and alumnae)
    • Aurora champions
    • Aurora role models
    • Aurora mentors
    • People working in/leading equality and diversity

Find out more and book

Demystifying Finance – Wednesday 18 April 2018
For women in higher education who want to improve their understanding of finance in higher education and develop financial management skills.

Find out more and book

Leadership Matters
Leadership Matters is our programme for senior women leaders in higher education and will be taking place in Manchester and Bristol in Winter and Spring respectively in 2018. For more information and to book a place please click here.

Preparing for Senior Strategic Leadership
Preparing for Senior Strategic Leadership is one of our most highly regarded programmes. It will take place once more this academic year:

PSSL Summer
Application Deadline: 8 June 2018
Programme Dates: Tuesday 19 – Friday 22 June
Location: Manchester

How I got onto a board

Jenny Ames worked in academia for 35 years across eight universities. Keen to join a board she attended a Women onto Boards event in 2017 and was appointed board member of Aneurin Leisure in July 2017. Here she reflects on her personal journey to board member.  

Becoming a board member is something that I started to seriously consider around 10 years ago, but the seeds were sown much earlier at the beginning of my career.

My background is in food chemistry research, as an applied subject this meant much of my research involved collaborating with industry. For example my first postdoctoral contract was funded by an American multi-national and following that as a head of my research group, most of my grants involved at least one external company. I enjoyed working with people from the private sector, learning how their companies operated and seeing my expertise being applied to address the challenges they faced. They valued my knowledge and ability to manage my research team and deliver projects on time. I got a sense of achievement.

Get a mentor or coach who is right for you

When I started my academic career in the early 1980s, there was no Leadership Foundation and, at least in my university, no culture of formal mentoring or coaching. From 2005-2017 I lived away from the family home in the week and progressed my career at four universities in different parts of the UK. It became important to me to be part of the community where I worked. I had also reached the stage where I had a wealth of experience that others could benefit from, including mentoring however, it was only in my last 10 years in academia that I myself benefited from various mentors and coaches to whom I will always be grateful.

The most valuable experience I had was with a professional coach and it was she who encouraged me to work towards a board role. The advice was three-fold: find someone who has such a role and ask to shadow them, go on a course so you understand more about what it involves, and join the Institute of Directors (IoD). I didn’t get around to shadowing someone but I did join the IoD.

Learn the basics

Importantly, my faculty supported me to attend an intensive two-day programme, The Effective Non-Executive Director, run by the Financial Times. This covered the soft skills and the hard skills required of a successful non-executive director (NED). This course gave me the tools I needed and it included a session with a NED head hunter. She advised that for someone who hadn’t been on a board before (like me), a good place to start was as a school governor or a trustee of a charity. Another attendee suggested joining Women on Boards to find possible roles. I also engaged with Reach Volunteering and I registered on the SGOSS Governors for Schools website.

Understand the value of the skills you do have and know your own values

It was the SGOSS site where I found an advert for a school governor about 10 miles from my flat. I applied, met with the head teacher and chair and deputy chair of the Board of Governors and was appointed.

I have a separate CV and covering letter template for board roles. The focus is hard skills like budgeting, health and safety, and governance. Soft skills include committee chairing and mentoring. I do not have any children, and so had no experience or knowledge of the current school system, but working at a local university was attractive to the school along with my experience of, for example, managing budgets and chairing large, formal meetings (although all in a research context). It was also important to be able to demonstrate that my values about enabling people to reach their potential aligned with their own.

This role got me off the starting blocks and I was very fortunate to find myself in an excellently run school. I learnt a lot about school education and was able to contribute to the finance and resource sub-committee. I left after a year as I was moving to another university.

Use your network

Early in 2017 I attended one of the Leadership Foundation Women onto Boards events aimed at encouraging more women to apply for a board position. Having given up the school governor role and done nothing since I decided to look for a new position. One point made at the event was that men often get a board position by asking someone in their network for help. Having a large and diverse network, I decided to take this approach. I had recently met someone at a regional IoD meeting and was due to follow up with him. When I asked for advice about a board role, he mentioned that something was coming up that might suit me. He put me in touch with the organisation so I could find out more. Shortly afterwards the job was advertised nationally and I applied. I was interviewed in June and appointed in July 2017 as a member of the board of trustees at Aneurin Leisure in South Wales.  It is early days and I plan to spend a day with the trust to help me to better understand how I can contribute.

A final word

It is important to join an organisation that you feel passionate about. One whose values align with your own. You are contributing your time and skills, usually for free. If you and the organisation are well aligned, you will both be amply rewarded.


Women onto Boards
For more information about the series including dates, location, pricing and how to book your place visit the Women onto Boards homepage.

Governor Development
Find out the latest in governance, including recent publications and what’s next in the Governor Development Programme, via our website

Our Equality and Diversity Programmes
The Leadership Foundation for Higher Education is committed to addressing the lack of representation in senior executive leadership positions of both women and people from BME backgrounds. You can find out more here.

About Jenny
Jenny Ames had a 35 year academic career across eight universities before establishing Jenny Ames Consulting Ltd in 2017. She works with universities, businesses and their stakeholders to develop strategy and talent and initiate and nurture cross sector collaborations. Jenny is now a member of the board at Aneurin Leisure and an Aurora role model.