The more precisely the position is determined, the less precisely the momentum is known in this instant, and vice versa.
– Werner Heisenberg, The Uncertainty Relations, 1927
Stories we tell – two
Uncertainty as opportunity
The unexpected snowman
During military maneuvers in Switzerland, the young lieutenant of a small Hungarian detachment in the Alps sent a reconnaissance unit into the icy wilderness. It began to snow immediately, snowed for two days, and the unit did not return. The lieutenant suffered, fearing that he had dispatched his own people to death.
But the third day the unit came back. Where had they been? How have they made their way? Yes, they said, we considered ourselves lost and waited for the end. And then one of us found a map in his pocket. That calmed us down. We pitched camp, lasted out the snowstorm, and then with the map we discovered our bearings. And here we are. The lieutenant borrowed this remarkable map and had a good look at it. He discovered to his astonishment that it was not a map of the Alps, but a map of the Pyrenees.
Karl Weick tells this story in Making Sense of the Organization (p.345-346). His conclusion is that organizations find their way not because they have the perfect strategy or an accurate map, but because they “begin to act, they generate tangible outcomes in some context, and this helps them discover what is occurring, what needs to be explained, and what should be done next.”
How is your organization chosing to act now – even in the midst of uncertainty? Who is finding and offering a temporary map to begin the journey forward?
When I first enter into working with an organization, I attempt to interview a variety of people. My goal is to see the organization from their unique perspective. But at times, I’m not certain that everyone is even talking about the same organization. Marketing, HR, Finance, Customer Service, Engineering, Logistics – each has its view that a single truth stands above the complexity of the issues.
And indeed, sometimes it is one thing. It’s the latest social media advertising campaign. But at other times it’s employee retention. At times it is lean operations. Then again it’s the influence of internal politics. Or it can be ideas and thinking that come from outside of the organization – from Steve Jobs at Apple or Jeffrey Immelt at General Electric. Or maybe it’s learning best practices from another industry.
Amid the opinions of the “one true thing,” stands the real problem: it’s all of these things and more. All at the same time, bumping into each other like a wild game of bumper cars. Chaotic. Complex. Unpredictable.
And so the discussion begins. What is the one question that we could ask together that would make a difference today? What is so important to this organization that it should not be lost, but kept and preserved? What guides you when you don’t know the answer? What can you accomplish together that you can’t do alone?
Uncertainty as opportunity
In South Central Kansas, we awoke to a winter wonderland this morning. The storm was forecasted for days in advance. Over the last two days, people were busy preparing, buying groceries, fueling vehicles, and dusting off snow shovels. We are all lured by the promise of certainty. We like to be prepared. We like maps, but a global positioning system that can pinpoint our location to within 15 feet is even better.
Yet the biggest myth we believe is that we know what comes next. Each event or performance is a moment in time. Measurements reflect the past. The challenge of leadership is to stimulate ourselves and our organizations to continually adapt, to move in new directions, to propel innovation. Julia Sloan suggests leaders can create an environment that supports change by developing five essential attributes. imagination, expanded perspective, ability to “juggle,” no control over, and desire to win.
Here are a few ideas that leaders can use to strengthen these attributes for themselves:
- Instead of saying, “No,” ask a question.
- Reflect on experiences and situations that evoke strong feelings like anger, sadness, or happiness.
- Write down your thoughts and feelings as a way to identify patterns and understand assumptions.
- Tell stories that illustrate your beliefs, thoughts, and feelings.
- Suspend judgment, slow down, look for a “surprise” – then reflect on the surprise.
Going for a walk this weekend, I came around a corner and was eye-to-eye with this snowman. Yes, he is mounted on a tree in the woods!
The unexpected is often surprising and unsettling. When organizations encounter the unexpected it can create significant disruption as individuals and teams work to come to terms with what has happened.
When organizations encounter the unexpected, the best leaders remain calm and level-headed. Leaders remind people of the focus of the organization. They don’t hide the facts, even when the news is bad. They observe and read the situation and people around them. They encourage people to experience their emotions, but then ask them to turn their attention outward.
Leaders shift the focus outward by engaging those around them in learning. They ask questions:
- What can we learned from this situation?
- What decisions need to be made?
- What risks are we willing to take?
- What do we not want to compromise?
- What are the most creative solutions you can brainstorm?
Being a leader is not about having a title or a position high on the organization chart. Being a leader means the ability to act with an authenticity that draws people together and motivates them to reach common goals. Being a leader is about embracing the uncertainty around every corner calmly and steadily .
“The unexpected always happens – the unexpected is indeed the only thing one can confidently expect. And almost never is it a pleasant surprise.” – Peter Drucker
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
I can live with doubt and uncertainty and not knowing. I think it’s much more interesting to live not knowing than to have answers which might be wrong.
– Richard Feyman
Idea for reflection – 16