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How Do You Show Up with Uncertainty?

Graphic that defines technical problems and adaptive challenges

We recently presented to group of nearly 150 insurance executives about how to tackle those adaptive challenges when the problem is not clear and the solution even less so. We explored the trap of seeking a quick fix when facing a situation that is uncertain, unclear, and uncomfortable. When in reality those situations require us to explore, experiment, and evolve and not always in that order.

One of the leaders posed a provocative question that I invite you to explore as well:

When facing those challenges that are unclear and may never become completely clear, how do we know if we’re successful or when do we accept it is something we’re going to be continuously working on?

Here was my response, roughly. First, success is redefined when we are facing the complexity of an adaptive challenge, because to make progress requires challenging and changing people’s beliefs, habits, and loyalty. There is not usually a moment where we wipe our hands in celebration and declare we are done. Success is often a moving mark changing week over week.

Second, if there are people involved in the adaptive challenge in any sort of meaningful way, you will always be working on it. A team will never just be a good team. A community will never just be a good community. A company will never just have a good culture, because they will always have to navigate the evolving needs of the humans involved.

In short, most of the deeper more impactful work we will ever focus on as people and as leaders will not be solved easily or at all. Because our goal in these moments is not, “are we done?” but rather, “are we moving forward?”

What often happens and what we are witnessing now, is that when we are faced with these challenges that feel like they do not have an end in sight, we can burn out. We might quit. Or worse yet, check the box and call it good. Here are a few examples we are experiencing now:

  • The vigilance and adaptation needed to live in a pandemic 100 days in is becoming too much for some and they are throwing in the mask (literally).
  • The reflection needed to examine the policies, systems, and roles in systemic racism at work results in comments like, “We just need to hire more black people”.
  • The reimagining of how and where we work is pushing some to “get back to normal” quickly instead of getting curious about new possibilities.
  • The challenge of holding people accountable leaves us in chronic states of toleration, “That’s just who they are.”

To be very clear, we all have moments when we are pushed too far, stretched too thin, and overwhelmed with possibilities. We cling to the familiar in hopes that it will protect us from the unknown. Sometimes we need the familiar to recharge, but need to be wary of the seduction of the same. Avoiding the work needed to move forward does not remove the issue, it just means we are going to deal with it longer.

I invite you to join me in this reflection:

  1. What issues personally or professionally emerge over and over again?
  2. What internal and external factors make it difficult for you to keep moving forward on those complicated challenges
  3. What would be possible if you kept moving forward by exploring, experimenting, and evolving on these challenges?

We will continue to face moments of uncertainty and unknowns. These moments may never be easy but understanding more deeply how we show up in those moments and then showing up differently can certainly make them easier.

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