Lessons from sport that can help us survive uncertainty, complexity and ambiguity

Recovering from a workout

Lessons from sport


Dealing with uncertainty, complexity and ambiguity in the workplace has become the uncomfortable norm for many of us today, and continuing to perform at our best can be especially challenging in this environment.

In this blog, we explore the parallels of dealing with uncertainty, complexity and ambiguity in elite sport and business and the lessons learned about maintaining high performance in challenging environments.

Working together as a team during uncertainty will guarantee a higher level of performance.

How to deal with uncertainty at work

Don’t forget to be a team player

In elite sport, you never know if you are going to get selected for the next tournament or competition. You live in an uncertain world because at any time you could get dropped from the team and replaced by someone else. Because of this, you can never rest on your laurels and must constantly push yourself and drive your own standards as high as you can. On the other hand, it is hugely important to remain a team player regardless of whether you’re selected or not so that you don’t compromise the success of your peers.

The business world doesn’t tend to have such cut-throat selection procedures, but high levels of uncertainty do make people worry about their job security. That can cause people to only look out for themselves and stop working as collaboratively. Working together as a team during uncertainty, whilst making sure you’re doing the best you personally can, will guarantee you a much higher level of performance than just concentrating on yourself.

Understand what’s in your control

Another element of uncertainty in sport is that, no matter what your world ranking, win statistics or your form is going into a game, anything can happen! External factors that can’t be controlled, such as the opponent’s mindset, the umpires, the weather conditions or even ‘luck’ within a game can affect performance and cause a weakness that the opposition are able to exploit.

Similarly, in business there are numerous political, economic and technological changes happening in our environment that we can’t control. The important thing is to think about what you can control in these situations. For example, ahead of a game, you can control how prepared you are, how much research on the opposition you’ve done, your mindset and your attitude. They are exactly the same things you can control in the workplace too.

How to deal with ambiguity at work

Develop your adaptability

A key factor in being successful in international sport is recognising and understanding that different nations play different systems. So, each time you play in a tournament, you have to adapt your game plan to give you the best possible chance of winning. It might be changing from man-to-man marking to a more zonal style of play or changing the formation to ensure you overload the team in critical areas.

That’s why I think adaptability is one of the greatest skills people will need as the pace of change continues. Business leaders will need to recognise when to adapt their business strategy in order to stay competitive in the long term. Just like in sport, what’s worked for you in the past, may not work for you in the future.

Communicate clearly and consistently

Playing in a team sport means there are many different people to manage within a squad. It’s very easy in stressful and ambiguous situations, such as in the closing stages of a tournament when you need a certain number of points or goals to go through to the final, for people to panic or lose their focus. That’s where mistakes can creep in.

One of the best ways to avoid that panic is through clear and consistent communication. This keeps people informed of the situation as it develops and reassures them of the strategy in place to deal with whatever it is. In addition, there needs to be the opportunity for people to discuss situations in an open and honest setting. Frustrations and concerns should be aired and listened to. Setting up a forum that enables this conversation to take place can be a simple but transformational move by a leader.

How to deal with complexity at work

Use data to help make decisions

In a complex environment, data is often used to aid decision making. In sport, everything is measured, meaning there is a lot of data available for our coaches to tap into and increase chances of success. For example, athletes wear GPS trackers to detect how far and fast they are running. When playing against an especially fast team, the coach will want to pick the speediest players but against a team whose strengths lie in the power domain, coaches may use measurements from the gym to ensure the strongest players are on the pitch.

Data can also tell us things like the number of touches of the ball, passing accuracy rate, conversion rate of critical chances and much more. It would be very easy for a coach or a player to get swamped by this data, and so the skill lies in being able to clearly define what your key priorities are for that match and selecting a small range of data points to help you make that decision.

Over-analysis leads to paralysis so the best coaches are able to keep a clear line of sight with what they want to achieve, and use data to contribute, rather than swamp them when making both big and small decisions. As a business leader, ensure that you are clear on what it is your trying to achieve before diving into all the numbers and figures. And make sure to always keep in mind the context – data doesn’t consider the nuances of human behaviour!

Focus on what will really deliver results

In sport, as in business, it feels like there’s a new innovation or ‘next big thing’ every week. Athletes are bombarded with information about new products or approaches that could make them be fitter, faster, stronger or recover better (e.g. altitude chambers, ice rooms, electronic vibration technology and virtual reality training, to name a few). There are so many solutions out there, it’s hard to know what really works, and whether it will work for you. Researching can make that even more complex, with each article saying something different about what helps and what doesn’t.

It’s important in sport and in business to do your due diligence before investing in something that might be old news in 12 months’ time. Speak to trusted experts within your network and trial things where possible; this will help you navigate the complexity of everything on offer and focus on what will deliver results.





Whether you’re an elite athlete or a business leader, you are guaranteed to be faced with the challenges that this uncertain, complex and ambiguous world throws at us. Recognising the challenges putting in place practical steps to deal with them is the key to success both on the pitch and in the office.

Do you have any tips for dealing with these challenges?