Getting comfort with uncertainty

I’ve read two pieces recently on the need the need to manage discomfort with uncertainty.  Though there is a a good evolutionary reason for discomfort with things that don’t fit regular patterns, many types of work require a certain comfort with uncertainty. They’ve suggested that the MCAT add questions on dealing with ambiguity.

Seth Godin argues that you have to keep “levelling up” and not assume you are ever fully baked and that your knowledge stash would be complete.

And, in this interview in The Atlantic on the “Benefits of Comfort with Uncertainty”  the normal human desire for closure and certainty is discussed.

Using some extreme examples such as the Waco hostage taking and the rise of the Nazis. author Jamie Holmes talks about the benefits of holding space for grey areas to advance thinking. What I appreciated most was the need to keep alternative perspectives on the table as long as possible because they might present solutions.  I also appreciated the reminder that divergent approaches may be seeking the same end game – I tend to crave closure on big ideas and fact checking whereas others crave more perfectly presented documents – same craving with different stripes – closure and certainty.

Confession: I was a benevolent dictator | SmartBrief


Source: Confession: I was a benevolent dictator | SmartBrief

A good piece on a book I enjoyed and have touched on in another piece called Multipliers.

This article focuses on the ability to empower employees by shaking off the inclination to be a constant contributor to the ideas they bring and resisting the temptation to give step-by-step instructions for every task.

I especially liked the quote that when you give advice, the brain is essentially asleep versus when you ask questions it engages the listener.

Three Steps To Get Up To Speed On Any Subject Really, Really Fast | Fast Company | Business + Innovation

This is a valuable piece which does a good general job of laying out explicit strategies for something I didn’t think could be explained well – what to do when you have to get command of a new and complex subject really quickly.

This has been a struggle for me as a manager because I haven’t been able to reverse engineer my own ability to (usually) hack together a decent understanding of most subjects through self-learning fairly quickly.  I can read fairly quickly and if I  jump in at the deep end and it eventually starts to make sense.

The advice below is therefore especially helpful because it forms a strategy to respond to the questions and resulting resistance that I hear a lot: I can’t do this because I don’t know the file like the expert and I would have to know the file inside out to be able to give advice.  In fact, most people are capable of getting a working understanding of a file in a limited period.  Yes there will be gaps and you can admit those but this piece should shine the light on the ability to get a credible start.

The whole article is worth a read but the gist:

  • Do an initial google search and then stop researching before you fall down a rabbit hole.  Now is the time to map out the extent of your understanding of the topic through borrowing visuals from others or making your own;
  • Then talk to people close to the topic who may be outside your sphere and (may not your first stop as subject matter experts); and then
  • Write out an description of your topic that would allow you to teach about it to a truly outside audience.


Source: Three Steps To Get Up To Speed On Any Subject Really, Really Fast | Fast Company | Business + Innovation

How do you act when you are interrupted?

I liked this piece on the importance of humility in leadership.  I have posted here and here on this issue, but this one brought more practically to the subject which I appreciated.

The need for humility in leadership may not be obvious when you think of the stereotype of leaders who should be confident taking decisions and giving direction.  To me the why of humility in leadership is a fusion of understanding that: you need a lot more information than you have to do your job, you may be your best version of a leader when you are in service to everyone, and that humility will help you build endurance for the journey.

From this piece, I particularly liked the test  to ask yourself the question “How do you act when you are interrupted?” (and ask yourself how you’d react when you are busy and when it is someone below you on the org chart).

It’s a brilliantly simple question and it hits at an area of deliberate growth for me in the past few years.  I work in an open concept office so there is no easy way to signal when I am trying to get through something and would prefer not be interrupted.  Though I am sure that I have spent too long acting perturbed that I have been interrupted, I have now taken the decision to treat my entire work day (with rare, clearly announced exceptions) as if I am hosting office hours.  This isn’t to say that I can give each conversation its due at the moment it is proposed – sometimes a sit down meeting is more appropriate and at times I am on my way somewhere.  That said, as a default, I want to be as present as I can for what people are coming to say.

I have learned good habits on this from observing others.  I used to marvel at senior leaders who acted as if they had all the time in the world to listen to you brief when I would be distracted at thinking about how busy they were and how I didn’t want to waste their time with a long briefing.  I then resolved to also be calm and clearly in receiving mode when employees would come and talk to me since expressing irritation, anger or panic do not support receiving the information needed.

Humility may save you from a mindset that won’t serve you well when you hit unfamiliar terrain.  The more you think you should (already) know how to be a good leader including from being told that you have inherent talent for the job, the less prepared you are to succeed when you reach an unfamiliar situation.  Carol Dweck makes a great point in this piece on mindset and leadership – it is much easier to have humility at the beginning of your management career and this wanes over time.  So the ultimate question is how to continue to show humility the longer you stay in a management role and no matter the stress you are feeling.


People grow if you believe they can change

I’ve enjoyed reading through a book of commencement speeches this week called “Way More Than Luck”.  Most moving to me was the one given by Madeleine L’Engle to Wellesley College in 1991.

She recounted how she was placed in a school which valued sport participation and she wasn’t able to contribute due to having been born with legs of two different lengths.  For some reason, her home room teacher equated this with a lack of intellect and completely gave up on her.  Madeleine withdrew from her schoolwork and began to dedicate herself to her own writing in Grade three.  She eventually switched schools and ended up with a first-year teacher who considered it part of her role find and affirm in each person, that which is intrinsically valuable.  The teacher tasked her with writing a sequel to the Odyssey.

I liked this reminder that people can rise to challenges but that your attitude about whether you think they can is crucial.

A recent article from the Harvard Business Review, People won’t grow if you think they can’t change, elaborates the point drawing on the fixed mindset versus growth mindset work of Carol Dweck.   Not only is a growth mindset important to see the potential for people to grow, a fixed mindset may prevent you from seeing the progress an employee has made (and may also well prevent an employee from seeing the progress you are making) thus calcifying a difficult relationship.

What was also poignant about reading L’Engle’s commencement speech was that L’Engle’s teacher acted as a force multiplier for her by taking a task that she was willing to do on her own and asking her to stretch and build on it.  I dipped into a book called Multipliers earlier this year on this theme.  While “diminishers” are apt to believe that work can’t get done without the help of a manager are more likely to shut people down with sharp remarks, “multiplier” managers can get two times more work from their people if they can build on their employee’s existing talents – things they can do with minimal effort, things they do without being asked and things that they’d do readily without being paid.  What is perhaps most liberating about multipliers is that they generate pressure to create the best work (and create the space that this could occur) without creating stress.  They rather generate the belief that the impossible is possible.

L’Engle admits that her sequel to the Odyssey likely wasn’t that great but the suggestion to attempt it seemed to help plant the seed for her momentous career in writing.


Effective People Think Simply

I’ve recently signed up to receive management material from the Stanford Business School and thought that this video on the value of having a simple set of rules to guide you was quite valuable.  This is not a new idea: Obama only wears grey or blue suits because he has so many other decisions to make and Alton Brown has a few simple rules to guide what he eats and drinks to manage his weight such as limiting to once a week alcohol and dessert consumption and never consuming “diet” foods.  That said, this piece elaborates how you might create some rules in a business setting,

Why a simple set of rules?

  • We get faster decisions
  • We get better decisions (if we overfit for the past, this is a poor predictor of the future)
  • People can actually follow a small number of rules even under great stress.

The gist of the research:

Researchers examined product development teams to see who got the most done and overly rule driven and complicated processes resulted in the wrong products being produced very efficiently while teams with no rules had a great time getting nothing done.

Teams benefited from having a few rules that would guide work but leave flexibility for innovation.

The steps recommended to develop your rules:

  1. Set your objective
  2. Find the bottleneck (it may not be where you think it is – in the example given it was during the hiring process.)
  3. Develop your rules by looking at your own data of when you have been successful and by talking to outside experts.

The hardest rules to follow are the ones telling you when to stop doing something – we are all great at starting something and very poor at stopping.

Two-Thirds of Managers Are Uncomfortable Communicating with Employees

We are in March madness for finishing our year end appraisals in the public service so this is timely.  I don’t think that it would be a surprise that giving feedback that may not be well received is stressful for anyone – managers or clients or friends.  It’s a skill I will be working on for the rest of my life.  And though I have benefitted greatly from this book on Difficult Conversations which I consider a management bible, I have likely gotten as much benefit from cross-discipline study on empathy and compassion.

I was more disheartened to see here that the issue could be framed as widely as communicating writ large and that giving credit or recognition were sources of significant difficulty for so many managers.

That said, I am a very introverted person by nature and I would suspect that there are many other introverted managers out there learning new communication patterns to align with this role.

What has helped me most was likely deliberate practice for all types of communications. Something greater than “just do it” though that is half the battle.

A former coach asked me to put a post-it on my computer to remind me to initiate more phone calls over emails – it was a good move.  I got so much more useful information at the margins of those conversations then I had ever planned that it became a habit.

For recognition, I have been influenced by this excellent book, and I now prepare so I can be very clear on why a person’s contribution is appreciated.  I’ve watched train wrecks where someone freestyles it and the wrong person is congratulated for something and soaring moments where significant and long-standing contribution is paid meaningful tribute.

For difficult conversations, I (over) prepare to try and understand the issue, the effect on the team and what my role is in the situation.  For these ones, the most difficult preparation is to remember to both stay on message and roll with the punches.  You may want to jump in at the deep end and be aware of your own reactions to stress so you can have strategies to moderate in advance.

And for any communication that I’d find a challenge, I try to create my own feedback loop as to what went well and what I can do better in future.  Lastly, I benefit from remembering  while I am learning that learning to receive feedback is its own skill.

Source: Two-Thirds of Managers Are Uncomfortable Communicating with Employees

Getting to ground with uncertainty, ambiguity and just plain vagueness or “you know everything I do”

Version 2

On some of my “I feel  like a bad manager” days, I’ve struggled mightily with needing to give vague instructions to advance a product and feeling discomfort if not resistance, resentment, anger and panic as employees work through the process.

With experience, I am now much more careful to share that I am not withholding information (“I know everything you know”) and I take care to erase the concern that I am delegating so quickly that I have skimmed over details that could support the iteration process.

I also now understand some of the reasons behind the negative emotions I see in these situations and it is helpful: I don’t want to waste time, I don’t want to look stupid, and I think this is pointless because your instructions are so vague that it is impossible for me to hit the mark.

And in fairness, as this recent piece from Fast Company outlines well, our formal training may well not prepare us to deal with ambiguity which is basically an opportunity to be creative or innovative and think about solutions that we may only discover through the process itself.

In bureaucratic settings we are not necessary advancing our skills to cope with ambiguity and uncertainty.  We are usually bounded by time, templates, page limits etc.

So how do we pull through when we know so little? The main thing is to advance something somehow so here are my tips:

  • I appreciate that the Fast Company piece focuses on the need to trust the effectiveness of your regular processes including your standard ways of researching problems and mining your existing networks for information.
  • Instead of focusing on the fact that limited boundaries could give rise to an infinite scope of products, focus on the fact that a good product can take many different forms.  If someone comes back with “I was thinking of a chart not a narrative actually” you can add that to your stash of useful information.
  • I’d suspect that vague iterations may especially painful for perfectionists.  This is a great moment to leave these tendencies at the door as best you can.  My best response to vague instructions is usually to jump in with a couple of iterations much earlier in the game than I would normally to figure out if I am even in the ballpark.  
  • I’d recommend to calibrate your normal reactions to feedback so that you are even less sensitive to anything negative or critical that comes your way in reaction to your iterations because you know that the instructions were vague.

Building stomach for the journey of tough decisions

A colleague and I did an online course on adaptive leadership this fall.  The course was free (through +Acumen) and supported by generous excerpts from a book called The Practice of Adaptive Leadership.

The general idea is that we need to adapt our leadership to situations and the course guides you through exercises which would help you probe particular areas which might require your adaptive skills.  The work of the course is to separate technical challenges from ones that are more complex and need emotional commitment and engagement.

Some of the  readings that resonated with me were on the execution of tough decisions.

“Tough decisions require that you put your heart into them, nourish the possibilities and then make a commitment to a course of action. If you are struggling with a decision then it is likely that all the options have merit.  Outcomes are usually significantly influenced by factors beyond your control and imagination.  And most decisions are iterative.  You can make a move, take the risk and if things are going well, continue, and if not, take corrective action.  See if you can lighten the load on your decisions and even make better choices because tough does not necessarily mean important – stakes may not be as high as you imagine them to be (versus medical judgements which are high stakes).  Maybe you are just making the next move on the dance floor. Think of a past tough decision and take heart in knowing that you survived whatever decision you made. And if you need to give yourself permission to fail, prepare the ground for your constituents.  Enlist them in giving it a shot – language is crucial – not that you can be counted on to pull this off but rather, perhaps that you are trying something to push the envelope.”


And on building stomach for the journey:

“Building resilience is similar to training for a marathon.  You need to start somewhere…In an organizational context, this can kind of training can take the form of staying in a difficult conversation longer than you normally would etc.[…] To further build your stomach for the adaptive leadership journey keep reminding yourself of your purpose.  Runners look forward, not down.  Saying focused on the goal ahead will keep you from being preoccupied or overwhelmed by the number of steps necessary to get there. ”

“Leading adaptive change will almost certainly test the limits of your patience. […] Impatience can hurt you in numerous ways.  Your raise a question and don’t get an immediate response.  So you jump right in and keep pounding on the question.  Each time you pound, you send the message that you are the only person responsible for that question. You own it.  And the more you pound away, the less willing people are to share ownership of the question themselves.  And if they do not feel any ownership of the question they will have less investment in whatever the resolution turns out to be.”

“You can find patience by tapping into your ability to feel compassion for others involved in the change effort.  Compassion comes from understanding other people’s dilemmas, being aware of how much you are asking of them.  Your awareness of their potential losses will calm you down and give you patience as you travel a journey that may be more difficult for them than for you.”

If you want to take on a patience building exercise:  Recall situations in the past when you have experienced great patience and think about what enabled you to do that.  Perhaps you were patient as your child learned something and you could remember yourself how hard it was for you to learn these skills.   Or you believed that most people survive difficult journeys and mastered needed skills so you had optimism that fuelled your patience.

7 Habits Of Parents Who Leave The Office At 5 P.M. Guilt-Free

I am not a parent but I’ll quibble with the title of this article anyway.  It hits all the right notes for trying to achieve a reasonable balance between work and the rest of your life but having worked in busy environments, when things are on fire, you won’t likely be leaving guilt free no matter what. Ever.  But can you make leaving at a reasonable time a practice?  You bet.  Does it get easier the more you stand your ground?  Yes, (if only slightly) in my experience.  I am not sure that you are ever going to feel less guilty at what isn’t getting done (by you) but with time, you can realize how important it is to attend to life outside of work.

The top regrets of the dying are worth a visit in conjunction with this article.  They include: working too hard, failing to stay in touch with friends and, in top spot, not having the courage to live a life true to oneself, not the life others expected of us.

But on to the strategies to get out of the office in the first place

1) Begin the day with your end in mind (including a firm motivation to get out the door).

2) Be clear on your values and then schedule your time to reflect these values.

3) Tell people when you have to leave

4) Do your most important work first

5) Start meetings before 4pm

6) Give yourself transition time

7) Realize that work will still be there tomorrow. 

Source: 7 Habits Of Parents Who Leave The Office At 5 P.M. Guilt-Free