How to Be Effective in Uncertain Times
To be effective in uncertain times we have to know when we are operating in emergent environments
Marty de Jonge
Feeling stuck lately? Are you having a hard time making decisions at home or at work? This is a common feeling right now, even for the most experienced and adept. As the world grows more complex, we have less certainty; we simply cannot know it all.
On top of that, many of the problem-solving skills we were taught are not so useful anymore.
To be effective in uncertain times we have to know when we are operating in emergent environments. In emergent environments, outcomes are not under our control and our usual bag of tricks is not so useful anymore. We must learn to adapt.
How to know when you’re in an emergent environment
You can learn to recognize emergence by exploring your own comfort zone.
Are you a person who thrives on order? Perhaps you’re ‘a-tidy-desk-is-a-tidy-mind’ kind of person. A person for whom vacation happens only with a tight itinerary.
Or do you love discovery and surprise? What happens on vacation is whatever catches your fancy at that moment. Or maybe you are somewhere in the middle.
On a scale from 0 to 10, think about how much uncertainty you tolerate in your life. Place yourself toward zero if you love routine and clear rules, and insist on knowable facts to make decisions.
If you thrive on spontaneity, surprise, taking risks, and discovering the unknown, place yourself towards 10.
Now, what’s your tolerance for doing it alone? If you need consensus or permission before acting, place yourself near zero. If you are comfortable acting on your own, no matter what others think or say, place yourself near 10.
Putting the two scores together gives us an idea of the types of environments we favor. You can plot your answers on the graph below, known as a landscape diagram.
Human Systems Dynamics Institute
From stable to emergent environments
Highly certain environments with lots of agreement about what to do are stable environments, such as a payroll department. Stable environments are bound by rules. What happened in the past is a reliable guide for what will happen in the future. Failure in a stable environment means missing a goal, such as being late with payroll. You can succeed by taking more control.
Situations where little is known and standard operating procedures are less useful, say during the early days of COVID-19, are unstable environments. Immediate action is needed to jolt the situation out of chaos into some order. We need to be on high alert. Failure results in overwhelm and confusion.
Chaos versus order. There’s a third choice: in between chaos and order are emergent environments, which arise from the complexity and are becoming the “normal” state of the world. In emergence, we know some things but not all. An agreement must be forged because there is no such thing as a single right solution. Instead, there are many ways of looking at a problem as well as multiple possible solutions. For example, how to reopen schools.
Perhaps the most important thing about emergent environments is that we cannot control outcomes. In stable environments, a manager can bark “stop the presses!” and the printing presses shut down. In emergent environments, shouting “build that wall” doesn’t materialize into a wall. Too many people and variables are involved.
Often, we cannot even be sure what will happen from the actions we take. You see this as economies, businesses, and schools close because of COVID-19, and then open and close again. Outcomes emerge because they are produced by the interactions of everyone involved, acting, and reacting to one another. The problem morphs and evolves.
Feeling “stuck” is common in emergent environments. The uncertainty of the situation makes us doubt which actions to take. We stew, trying to figure it out, or engage in lengthy searches for more information, some of which is simply not knowable. The lack of agreement about what to do also makes it hard to move forward.
In the meantime, while we stew, the problem is moving ahead without us.
The command-and-control leadership of stable environments rewards decisive action that fixes problems. You can’t fix a problem in emergent environments because there’s no precise cause and you don’t control the outcomes. How do you “fix” the problem of school reopening?
Use the landscape diagram to size up your problem. How much agreement exists, or disagreement? Around what? What do we know for sure and what do we wonder about?
If you land in the emergent zone, your job is to go into discovery mode. Don’t expect to have all the answers. Emergent zones require adaptive leadership.
Get as full a picture as you can (in a reasonable and appropriate time frame). Then take an action that you believe will nudge the problem in a helpful direction. Watch what happens. Now you have more information and grounds for your next nudge.
Keep repeating the pattern: see what’s happening, understand it as fully as possible, take action. In times of high uncertainty, small frequent action can lead us to our destination more quickly than trying to address a problem in one fell swoop. Smaller actions, such as partial business reopening, carry less risk but still provide needed information. They allow us to learn and adapt as we go.
For example, suppose you are a public official and the Mayor insists that you reopen a community center. You think it’s premature because COVID-19 is still circulating in your town. In this administration, people do whatever the Mayor wants, whether or not they agree.
What could you do to break that pattern? Can you learn more about what’s behind the Mayor’s decision? What is important to her? What are her assumptions about the virus? What kinds of outcomes would she find unacceptable, and can you shed light on how likely those are?
Now you have more information to guide your next steps. The Mayor might be uninformed but adamant. Or she might be genuinely concerned about children who are in need of safe daycare and food. Your next step will be quite different depending on what you find out.
You might be saying, “Hey wait a minute, I already do those kinds of things.” We are naturally adaptive. But it gets knocked out of us over time with rules, protocols, expectations, and norms.
We get stuck when we let those rules, protocols, expectations, and norms lock us into place, constraining the degrees of freedom we have to solve the problem.
So, the next time you feel stuck, plot your problem on the diagram.
Where does it sit? If it’s in the emergent zone, accept it as such. Stop trying to control or predict the precise outcome and start looking for what is keeping you from being adaptive. It might be a boss, a rule that was meant for an earlier time, or a lack of communication.
It might even be yourself. Where did you end up on the diagram?
Marty de Jonge
As an agnostic change agent, I am constantly amazed at what happens in organizations and learn every day. Enthusiastic writer and always open for discussion.