Tips for Navigating Uncertain Territory (Part 3 of a 3 Part Series)


This blog builds on previous Part 2.

Tips for Navigating Uncertain Territory

Here are some of the ways I coach leaders in learning how to work in this uncomfortable territory of not having a clear answer or plan:

  • Name the discomfort – I find it helps to name how uncomfortable this feels, e.g., to convene a group without a plan. Showing this graphic to the left brings some humor to it. I invite people to give it a try.
  • See it as ‘iterative design’ – The nature of this work is to design things with the group each step of the way and accept that we do not know where it is headed. I assure people if they can trust the group and give them the space to arrive at the answers together, there will be a much greater level of buy-in and commitment. We will get to clear answer(s) each step of the way and it is helpful to record, illustrate, and share back what has been decided regularly.
  • Frame strategic questions – Instead of coming up with answers, the focus is on coming up with questions. The role of the leader is to sense and clarify the context and distill what is needed into a strategic question, or series of these, for the group to answer. I imagine this as standing on the edge of the known and unknown, and asking a question that can bring clarity to the next step. This blog about Setting the Table for a Great Meeting offers a process for this.
  • Appreciate the value of the mystery – I have come to realize that the mystery of “not knowing” is the source of vitality, aliveness, and creativity. This kind of space is what draws people in. Think about watching a movie or reading a mystery novel, you are curious about what will happen next, you are drawn into to discover the clues, it is fun and entertaining. Likewise with a group, when you design an initiative or meeting by framing powerful questions that the group will jointly find answers for, this generates interest. And, when answers emerge together, which had not been clear at the start, it builds confidence in the value of this way of working.
  • Cultivate patience – This takes some inner work on the part of leaders to “let go” of those conditioned tendencies of urgency, need for action, micromanaging, command and control, deliverables, outcomes, and rush. This impatient energy of “what are we going to DO?” can undermine and shortcut the value of collaboration. A coach or colleague can point out when leaders fall back into traditional ways of rushing to an answer and action too soon.
  • Meditate – I have found that a regular practice of meditation has been valuable in learning to be comfortable in this state of “not knowing.” In Comfortable with Uncertainty, the Buddhist teacher, Pema Chodron, articulates the challenges of this territory and shares practices to hone our capacity to work in this space. The aim is to focus our attention in the present moment, and notice where our thoughts take us into planning, thinking, and figuring out. When you notice, you let them go, and repeat and repeat. With practice, it gets easier to be okay with where things are at this moment and the urge to plan and control lessens.
  • Orient people to working in this different way  – There are various ways to frame how a leader can show up, such as:
    • Invite people to help find answers together versus see people as someone to pitch or convince to get on board with your idea
    • Give space for ideas to emerge and take shape versus debate what we already know and ideas we already have
    • Make sense of a changing situation together versus assume we know the answer
    • Inquire, learn, and experiment as a scientist or inventor might versus operate in a command and control mode of implementation like a military leader or project manager
    • Realize that the path will only become clear as we walk it (and it will likely not be linear) versus following a pre-existing route on a map
    • See conversations and learning together (i.e., that weave relationships and connections to create a rich web of networked collaborations) is itself action versus only see outcomes as things that are visible or in an action plan.

For further learning in this area, I recommend reading about the Chaordic Path or Chaordic Stepping Stones, which is a process used in Art of Hosting. This quote from Kathy Jourdain of Shape Shift Strategies sums it up well:

“’At the edge of chaos’ is where life innovates — where things are not hard wired, but are flexible enough for new connections and solutions to occur. To lead teams, organizations and communities on the chaordic path, leaders need “chaordic confidence,” to have the courage to stay in the dance of order and chaos long enough to support generative emergence that allows new, collective intelligence and wiser action to occur.”

3 thoughts on “Tips for Navigating Uncertain Territory (Part 3 of a 3 Part Series)

  1. This is very helpful stuff, Beth! I especially think that just starting with naming the discomfort is HUGE. In our culture it seems to be the hardest thing to do, but until something is named, it can’t be dealt with. And I find that, once something has been named and acknowledged, it begins it’s own, internal, organic process of healing.
    Thanks for writing this!

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