Wayfinding: A unique crisis leadership tool

Looking for strategies to help lead your team members through this crisis? Wayfinding can help you ease the anxiety that comes from uncertainty: Here's how to use it
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CIO as Digital Leader

The COVID-19 pandemic is impacting every aspect of our lives and making it difficult to predict what will happen next month, next week, or even tomorrow. Such uncertainty can take a heavy toll on both individuals’ well-being and organizational performance.

One of the most important things you can do as a leader today is help others find a way forward. Start by drawing insights from something everyone has experienced (even if we might not know exactly what we were experiencing). Consider the art of wayfinding.

[ Want a little good news? Read also A silver lining to the current crisis: Rethinking work. ]

Wayfinding: An example

We don’t necessarily need to know what the entire journey looks like. Simply knowing the next step greatly reduces anxiety and increases confidence.

A recent trip took me through two major airports, one in Europe and the other in the United States. The European airport used simple, logical images to direct travelers to ticketing, passport control, restrooms, restaurants, etc. Clearly, effort had been put into designing an effective wayfinding system. The U.S. airport, in contrast, offered no such guidance – I had no idea where to find my connecting flight, and there were no visual cues to help me out.

When faced with uncertainty, our minds become overwhelmed – there are too many variables to consider. Uncertainty and complexity reduce our cognitive capacity, and we become paralyzed or make irrational decisions. Research done in airports, city centers, hospitals, and other public spaces indicates that effective wayfinding greatly reduces people’s stress and increases confidence.

The key lesson from wayfinding

One of the most useful lessons wayfinding can teach us is that we don’t necessarily need to know what the entire journey looks like. Simply knowing the next step greatly reduces anxiety and increases confidence.

How can you, as a technology leader, apply wayfinding to help your team members deal with uncertainty? Start by letting your employees, your suppliers, your customers, even your boss know that you are thinking through where you are going and what the next step will be.

How to send a wayfinding message

Acknowledge the uncertainty, but focus on the certainty: “There is much we don’t know about what will happen over the next few weeks, but we do know that our enterprise still needs technology to function. Our expertise is, and will continue to be, vital for our operations and to serve our customers.”

Provide immediate next steps: “Our immediate priority is to roll out new data security measures and guidance to support working remotely. You will be getting more details about our Remote Work Data Security Action Plan by 11:00 a.m. today.”

Hold frequent check-ins and share subsequent steps: “Beginning today, each unit will have a daily digital huddle, a remote check-in at 4:00 p.m. each day. This will provide a learning loop where you’ll review our day’s efforts and get clear direction on what to work on next.”

The most effective leaders find ways to integrate wayfinding lessons into their communications. They will play an important role in guiding their teams and their organization through these uncertain times.

[ Are you leading through change? Get the free eBook, Organize for Innovation. ]

Scott Hutcheson, PhD has spent 25 years helping current and future leaders design, manage, and strategically transform complex organizations and ecosystems to make them more adaptive, innovative, and competitive. He’s  has been engaged by over 500 organizations from industry, the public sector, higher education, and nonprofits from across the U.S. and internationally.