By Guest Contributor Neil Usher
Drawing on ideas in parts 1 and 2, advocating leaders developing a comfort with uncertainty and the opportunity it brings through a deeper understanding of change.
CHANGE IS MESSY, BUT THEN AGAIN SO IS LIFE
Corporate leadership – an aspiration for many, with its high profile and rewards. The corner office (or at least workstation). The parking space. The large car to put in the parking space. Or have others do it for you. A large sum of money to start, and a large sum of money to finish, irrespective of whose choice it is. People doing what you ask. Why wouldn’t it be an aspiration?
It’s not all just a sumptuously carpeted supermarket sweep. There are decisions to made that affect the livelihoods of those within the organisation and many outside it, too. Decisions that have to be agonised over, and then lived with. That have your name indelibly etched on them. Often with memories proportional in length to the degree of error evident in their making.
Which is why within organisations great structures of governance are assembled to create conditions of certainty, so that decisions can be made on the basis of ‘known knowns’, plans laid out in unidimensional linearity, so that everyone can sleep soundly. We extrapolate the desire for the expected to happen as usual in the minutiae of our lives, for pure convenience, to the grandest stage. Yet as the philosopher Nietzsche said, “No doubt, certainty is what drives one insane.” If everything is certain, nothing interesting can or will happen. We merely get what we expect.
BUT, HOW MUCH DO WE ACTUALLY KNOW?
If we hear a leader utter ‘we’ve got a plan and we’re sticking to it’ we might well be very afraid. Plans are for where we have, or aspire to, certainty. They contain dependencies with which we can be reasonably happy. The critical path is paved. The leader deems themselves confident, they’ve received the reassurances from what they see and everyone around them.
Yet how much do we actually know we know? If we know what we don’t know, we might have a plan with options. The situation could go one of (say) three ways, as information becomes known and we traverse the timeline we become increasingly sure, until we get to a situation where we know what we know. None of which of course happens because nothing stands still. We’re not in a lab unless we’re a scientist. So, we need more certainty, set out to create it….and then we rinse and repeat.
Yet uncertainty is our opportunity in a world where despite the best efforts of the corporate machinery, nothing stands still. Despite their best efforts to appear otherwise, our leaders are more likely to be lost. The uncertainty doesn’t, of course, seem like an opportunity, it appears more as a threat to top-floor double-aspect reassurance. Lost means unable to make decisions. It means prevaricating, playing for time, watching for what others do. In such a climate it becomes more a matter of first-mover disadvantage.
A DEEPER UNDERSTANDING OF CHANGE IS BENEFICIAL TO LEADERS
This doesn’t mean an acronym to be trotted out by rote. It’s unrealistic to expect all leaders to instinctively know how to make things happen. We like to think that our leaders have demonstrated this at some point in order to be where they are, but it’s not always so. It could just as easily have been by dint of fortune, the actions of others or pure random chance. The indelibility of decisions declares no cause.
This understanding of change also informs that when we’re lost, we don’t plan – we prepare. We make ourselves ready for the things we don’t know we don’t know. In so doing we also deal with an altogether tougher category; those things we don’t know we know because we’ve either consciously or subconsciously suppressed them. They’re there, yet for any number of reasons we’ve not wanted to face them, even though we know we have to.
BECOME A LOST LEADER
It’s also where leaders have to relish being lost. That’s because with all of the innate frustrations of this condition comes discovery, surprise and opportunity. It allows for the demonstration of insight and skill. We don’t find our way with a plan, we do so with a mindset that is prepared, open and flexible and an ability to read the unfolding situation, test, adjust and navigate. There may be decisions that transpire to be wrong, but if they bring further insight then they’re worthwhile. And there’s no amount of learning that’s too great. As Sun Tzu said, ‘reconnaissance is seldom wasted’.
Where everything is change and nothing stands still, lost is a natural state. Being prepared, and being able to make sense of the situation, means understanding change and the opportunity it presents. By the time we’re certain it’s likely to have passed. And so, for the leader who clings to the hope of it, will their moment.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
NEIL USHER has almost 30 years’ experience as a business leader who has delivered innovative working environments for large organizations globally. Together with this practical experience, his influential blog (workessence.com), regular conferences and academic talks have made him a leading thinker in the profession. He is also author of Elemental Workplace.
‘You never step in the same river twice.’ Our intensely interconnected world never stops evolving. Amid the chaos of intended and unexpected consequences we’re expected to lead a change initiative. We have to learn fast, as its already started. This highly practical, human and humorous book shows us how to makes complex change attainable – organizational, professional or personal – whether you have years of experience or are facing your first major challenge. It helps us think about what change is and means, how we prepare for it and what we do to make it successful. It may just be the most readable book about change yet.
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