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Uncertainty as opportunity

Waiting for the Winter Wheat

In Kansas, the winter wheat is planted. We watch and wait for it to emerge, wondering if the weather will support its life. We wonder – and all the while every human being is born with a preference for predictability. We want to know when and where we will sleep and eat. We are most comfortable with people who are like us. We learn more when we are given an agenda or syllabus that tells us what’s coming. Yet life remains uncertain; we can’t control everything or get all of our questions answered.

In our organizations we like certainty too. We create five-year plans, develop key performance indicators, and post weekly metrics on the bulletin board in the cafeteria or coffee area. Yet, here too, the unexpected and uncertainty continually get in the way. Or do they? What if we changed our perspective, paradigm, assumptions, or way of seeing?

As organization leaders and organization development practitioners, our role is to engage uncertainty, to engage what is emerging. I’ve used the Appreciative Inquiry and Open Space Technology processes to successfully engage organizations and individuals in emerging possibilities. As often as I’ve used these processes, I’m still amazed at the unexpectedly innovative and surprisingly positive outcomes – ones that could not have been imagined when we started.

Peggy Holman, coauthor of The Change Handbook, suggests that when we engage emergence, we become more inspired to pursue things that matter, form new connections with other people, and create new possibilities. The challenge is choosing to engage the disruption, chaos, and upheaval rather than spending our energy trying to fix and maintain the existing system. Practical questions for engaging the possibilities in uncertainty:

  • What is most important?
  • Given the unexpected circumstances, what is possible now?
  • Given the broken process, what would it look like if it were working successfully?
  • What could we do together as a team that we can’t do by ourselves?
  • What would you most like to do?

As for the future, your task is not to foresee it, but to enable it.
Antoine de Saint-Exupéry, The Wisdom of the Sands

8 Comments Post a comment
  1. Kathleen,

    I love the reference to winter wheat! What a wonderful entry into reflections on uncertainty in organizations. And thanks for the reference to Engaging Emergence: Turning Upheaval into Opportunity –

    You offer some good questions for engaging.

    October 7, 2010
    • friesengroup #

      Thank you for pointing my readers to the Engaging Emergence web site. I encourage them to visit and to read the book. I’m working my way throught it and plan to use it as a text book in a course at Friends University in January. We already use the Change Handbook; and this new book is an important addition for our course work.


      October 7, 2010
  2. …when we engage emergence, we become more inspired to pursue things that matter, form new connections with other people, and create new possibilities.

    great thinking — so how DO we DO that?

    October 8, 2010
    • friesengroup #

      Here’s my short answer to a BIG question! In my opinion we do this by first creating a space where the chaos – positives, neutrals, and negatives are all authentically welcome. In this safe space, we invite everyone to ask bold questions, name things, tell stories, dialogue, debate, and discuss. This is what allows us to begin creating meaning and making sense. As we experience ourselves as part of something larger, I’ve seen people connect, share a wide variety of knowledge, skills, and abilities – all in order to create something new that couldn’t be done alone.

      There are many emergent processes that allow this to take place. Some of them are referenced here.
      What do you think?

      October 8, 2010

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