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New year and the unknown: leading in uncertainty

This blog is written by Dr Carol Jacklin-Jarvis, Director of the Centre for Voluntary Sector Leadership in the Faculty of Business and Law at The Open University.

Photo of misty road with a bend up ahead - pine trees sit either side. The image creates a sense of the unknown, uncertainty but also exciting adventure. By Katie Moum on Unsplash

The one thing we know about 2021 is that the uncertainty of 2020 is still with us.  I ended my new year break by watching a superb adaptation of Chekhov’s Uncle Vanya – theatre via the BBC as compensation for a long break from visiting the theatre itself.  It was hard not to feel the relevance of the contemporary translation of one line - ‘Everything’s the same as ever - except worse’.  Undoubtedly, we were all hoping that 2021 would be different from 2020.  Now, we know that for a time at least the challenges of the last year will continue.  Watching social media, there are numerous celebrations of the difference that volunteers and voluntary organisations have made to people’s experience of the COVID-19 pandemic.  There is also recognition that there is a very challenging year ahead for the voluntary sector – not least because some of the issues are only known in part.  In a context of rising need, sudden policy shifts, changing patterns in volunteering, and over-stretched resources (human and financial), it is impossible for many to make plans for the months ahead in the traditional way.  Instead, volunteers, trustees and staff must learn to lead in the midst of great uncertainty.

In my early studies of the collaboration literature, I frequently found suggestions that collaborating with others is a way to reduce the impact of uncertainty.  The argument goes that combining an organisation’s unique but limited resources with a partner’s different resources makes it possible to respond in a more agile and comprehensive way to challenges and knocks in a shifting external environment.  But other research, including my own, highlights the uncertainty that is often generated through the collaboration process.  Collaboration involves ceding (at least some) control to a partner.  It adds to the unknown in the form of that partner’s (often unspoken) preferred ways of working and hidden agendas, and vulnerability to their use of power in an asymmetric relationship.  Collaboration itself can thus contribute to the uncertainty in an organisation’s environment.

I have heard about great examples of collaboration within and across sectors in recent months, and some voluntary sector research informants have spoken of breakthroughs in collaboration with their public sector partners.  However, others have found that the challenges of collaboration have been ‘the same as ever – except worse’.  Perhaps one reason for this is that we all too often place unrealistic expectations on the processes and practices of collaboration as a way of managing situations that are unpredictable and without easy answers.  Instead, perhaps leading in uncertainty requires engaging in more open and direct conversations with partners about what is really achievable through collaboration and when and where it makes sense to press on separately, so as not to divert scarce resources into time-consuming negotiations about who does what, when and why.  Although this can seem counter-intuitive, it is in line with advice from the authors of the Theory of Collaborative Advantage:

The overwhelming conclusion from our research is that seeking collaborative advantage is a seriously resource-consuming activity so is only to be considered when the stakes are really worth pursuing.  Our message to practitioners and policy makers alike is don’t do it unless you have to.

The CVSL team will be continuing to reflect in 2021 on how we can best support learners and practitioners to lead in this uncertain environment.  Keep reading this blog for our further reflections, and do keep the date of 12 May free in your diary to join our annual conference where we will explore these themes further.  We’d also love to hear from you about your leadership journey, collaboration experience and learning needs.  You can email the team at oubs-CVSL@open.ac.uk.

13th January 2021

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