4 Counter-Intuitive Steps to Deal with Ambiguity and Uncertainty

Apr 29, 2024

Part of what makes change management hard is that we like stability, comfort, certainty, and clarity. As members of living systems, however, changes in external conditions often means we have to adapt. And that requires moving through ambiguity and uncertainty. This makes us uncomfortable, so too often, we rush through the discomfort latching onto the first option for adapting to the change. That decision brings us comfort, but is it the best decision?

Change comes at us rapidly and often these days. The discomfort increases our stress response, which negatively influences our decision-making abilities, leaving us with the sense we are constantly putting out fires. The solution is counter-intuitive. Instead of increasing your speed-to-adaptation, you might best be advised to slow down, broaden your view, and have a conversation (or two) worth having.

Stay in the mess of ambiguity and uncertainty.

Step 1. Apply a standard stress management technique: slow down. Slowing everything down calms your nervous system. If nothing else, just pause. Pausing interrupts your pattern, which gives you an opportunity to remind yourself to breathe. Slow, deep breathing (with the exhale lasting two counts longer than the inhale) activates our parasympathetic nervous system. This invites you to shift from reacting to responding. Make your first response: get curious. Before converging on an adaptation or solution, ask generative questions that support divergent thinking.

Slow down to go fast.

Step 2. Use those questions to widen the view. A stress response narrows our visual field as well as our critical thinking skills. Give yourself time to see and hear more of what’s entailed in the situation. Unless you’re putting out actual fires, it’s likely you have time for convesations worth having with others. Here are a few important generative questions to get started:

  • Use system thinking to get the system picture: How is this impacting/going to impact the health and wellbeing of the system (people, teams, products and services, supply chains, vendors, customers, etc.)? You want to make sure your solution doesn’t just solve a local issue while creating negative ripples throughout the system.
  • Engage relevant stakeholders: Who needs to be in the conversation about this? Consider anyone who will be impacted, might influence the outcome, might invest in a decision, has relevant information, or has an interest in this challenge. Think, who’s going to experience the ripple of how we adapt?
  • Ground your conversations in your company’s purpose: How does this connect with your organization's broader purpose, mission, vision? Is this a challenge to your way of doing business? Will it impact your ability to deliver on your purpose? Does it require a change to your strategic plan?

With greater visibility comes comfort and effective decision-making!

Step 3. Engage people in conversations worth having. Having all relevant people in the conversation together allows you to avoid the wasted time of bureaucratic decision-making. In small groups, have people respond to generative questions that make the invisible visible, create shared understanding, generate new knowledge, and inspire possibilities. Divergent and systems thinking will broaden everyone’s awareness as well as expose hidden assumptions and beliefs that might otherwise inhibit creative thinking. These conversations are best supported by asking generative questions such as:

  • How relevant is this for us? Is this a game changer?
  • What strengths of ours might we bring to this challenge?
  • What opportunity is this creating for us? Is this an opportunity to innovate? Transform? Reinvent ourselves?
  • What would it take for us to turn this into an advantage?
  • Is anyone in our organization (or another) already responding to this? What might we learn from them?
  • What information do we have and need to make a good decision?
  • In addition to what needs to happen, what else might we like to have happen? What might give us the advantage?
  • What are your ideas? 

Step 4. Converge with the end in mind. Before identifying possible ways forward, clarify the desired outcome. Ultimately, what is it you want to do, offer, or achieve that aligns with the system’s wellbeing and purpose? Given the broader picture and the ideas and aspirations that have emerged in your conversations, converge on a pathway forward. It might be one solution. It could just as easily be 2-3 experiments that you’ll implement and learn from, evolving your way towards the future.

(A side benefit: no need to get buy-in. With all relevant stakeholders involved from the beginning, they have ownership!)

Get comfortable being uncomfortable 

Machines can often be fixed fast, but human systems are natural, and nature responds more slowly though effectively. We can learn from her. If the change is mechanical, get it fixed or buy the gizmo. But if it’s something related to systems change (including people and strategy), stay in the mess. Get comfortable moving slowly through the ambiguity and uncertainty. These four steps will allow you and your organization to be more creative, make better decisions, and ultimately be more successful. And over time, you’re likely to get comfortable being uncomfortable!  

By Cheri B. Torres, PhD  As someone prone to jumping to action, I’m talking to myself in this article. My current deep dive into learning as much as I can about regenerative business and leadership is reinforcing this idea of slowing down to go fast. It reminds me of how much time, money, and productivity I have thrown at “being quick to respond.” Poco a poco, I am learning. If you'd like to learn more about regenerative leadership, check out Balancing Act. You might also be interested in Regenerative Leadership by Giles Hutchins and Laura Storm.
Photo: Roman Odintsov available at pexels-roman-odintsov-11025236

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