Thriving in uncertainty is what I am good at. It is my job as an innovation expert. Yet, even I find myself being pulled in all directions at the moment. So, I went back to the basics. You have two options when things are uncertain, wait or act. Acting makes me feel better, because waiting is not in my character. However, that is not always the best approach.
Pulled in all directions
The first time it became clear to me that COVID19 would have far going implications, was when two of our kids came home from college. Within a week, we had to move both out of their dorms.
Soon thereafter, all my in-person workshops and gigs were being canceled. Significant revenue for the second quarter vanished.
My dear husband is always positive. According to him, it will all turn out okay. However, seeing more money going out of my bank account than coming in, makes me nervous.
Turning to online webinars for insights and advice has only made me more confused and anxious. One webinar tells you to work twice as hard. The other to take care of yourself and let it all go because we are not superheroes. So, what is it? What am I supposed to do? No lie, I would love to be a superhero!
My clients seem equally confused. Some being very clear about not wanting any help. They have come to the conclusion that they first want to figure it out themselves. While others are grateful for a listening ear and open to try new offerings in these challenging times.
Thriving in uncertainty
I love solving problems, coming up with creative solutions, finding new angles, and I always see a path forward even in dire circumstances. That has served me well, especially with all the moves we made back and forth across the Atlantic Ocean as a family. I am not afraid, I thrive in uncertainty!
When facing uncertainty or new situations I practice what I preach. I define the general direction. Set my goals. List the assumptions I am making, and start testing what works and what doesn’t. Based on the feedback I receive, I adjust my plans, until I am where I wanted to go. This approach has always served me well in the past. On occasion, I even have ended up at different and better places than I thought possible.
If you are curious, my current list of assumptions are:
- Uncertainty has become impossible to ignore:
- While travel restrictions may come to an end soon, people will avoid going to places unless they must.
- We have only seen the surface of the impact COVID19 is having. People will start to expect more online and other convenient alternatives from all their service providers.
- The financial impact of lost revenue will start to hit most companies just now, two months into the crisis, because no new revenue is coming in.
- Companies that were innovating before – even just at a small scale – will get back on their feet, if they have a properly functioning innovation process in place that will enable them to test and explore new avenues quickly.
- Companies that paid lip service to innovation will not be able to pick up the new game fast enough unless the organization is small (less than 20 employees).
Assumptions like these give me a sense that I have a grasp on the future despite all the uncertainties. They may not be true. However, as long as I monitor the assumptions that I am using to shape my future, I know that I am safe and I know when I need to change course.
In recent weeks, however, I have found that the current uncertainties are different. Previously, I faced uncertainty and had choices to make, but the world was relatively certain. Now, in the current uncertainty, the feedback loop is broken when I am testing ideas and assumptions. It is increasingly difficult to get reliable feedback about what works and what doesn’t. At best, I receive very noisy signals. Simply, because the people I reach out to don’t know either what they want or need, now or in the near future. This time the uncertainty is external.
Back to basics
So what are the two fundamental choices you have, when facing uncertainty? Wait and act.
My reaction so far has been, act and act more. Which probably has contributed to getting even noisier feedback.
The best solution probably is to wait. But waiting is scary.
Did you know that for a goalkeeper who must stop a penalty, it is statistically better to wait before choosing and going for a corner? However, most goalies prefer to go for a corner and make a spectacular dive anyways. It feels much better to take action than to wait. That is why you often see goalies dive in the wrong direction. Nevertheless, making the wrong decision still feels better than waiting for the ball to come your way. The latter feels silly and lazy, in spite of it being the response that is more likely to lead to a successful outcome.
What if I would just pause for a few weeks. I would have time to enjoy the moment (we are all still healthy), I could take care of myself, play music, and stay fit. I could listen to my clients without any constraints and I could work to further improve our current offerings. That way, when clients are ready, I would meet them where they are. Writing it out, this sounds like a solid strategy.
However, my anxious me makes that I want to take action. I have the brains, energy, and ability to help others in this crisis. That is what my inner voice is telling me.
Meantime, I am well aware that our development team should keep focussing on our T4 online training platform. There is no need (yet) to refocus the development efforts of our software team or get them engaged in new activities.
What actions to take in uncertain times, when things are all new?
Behave like a kindergartener, is the best advice I could find out there. It comes from an article by Rory McDonald and Kathleen Eisenhardt in the Harvard Business Review.
Kindergarteners learn by copying. Why do I always have to come up with new things? Why not copy what seems to be working for others? Forget about differentiating, borrow ideas instead. So that is what I did with for the online prioritization workshop we created.
I followed an excellent session by Esther van de Storm of Stormpunt about facilitating online brainstorm workshops. I have copied her set up and applied, so we can now prioritize the portfolio of innovation projects with our clients in an online brainstorming session.
Kindergarteners pause, watch, wait when they play. They reflect on what they have done and accomplished. To decide to either trash it all – like a sandcastle made on the beach – or stick with it and make it better, like a Lego structure.
Reflect on what you like about what you have created and toss out what you don’t. We have been doing this with our online training. Our developers Werner, Brendan, and Agustin have been working relentlessly to make our platform even better in recent weeks.
Kindergarteners also test relentlessly before committing to something. That is why these classrooms have cupboards full of fun stuff from puzzles, blocks, papers, to cars and dolls.
And that is what I have been doing too – as I mentioned earlier. I have experimented with all kinds of messages. I started encouraging people to innovate, then to explore, then to prioritize, then to deal with budget cuts, now to thrive in uncertainty. And I have accepted that I have yet to find the best hook to engage our audience in this new reality of COVID19.
While testing, I have to accept that I am trying different things and that not all will work. And in the process, I have learned to accept that the feedback loop is noisier than what I am used to.
Acting and testing may not be the best approach. It certainly does not suit everyone or every organization.
However, unlike a goalkeeper, I don’t have one shot or one save to make. I am not even playing for the game. I am at practice, working to get even better at learning to deal with this new kind of uncertainty. Practice makes perfect!