I’m a planner by nature, by training and by profession. Nothing brings me more joy and comfort than planning a week’s menu, learning new approaches to strategic design, or helping an individual or organizational client articulate core values and goals and develop strategies to achieve them. As a planner, I rely heavily on data. But how can I plan these days, when so much is unknown and uncertain, when the world is in flux and what we “know” continues to change daily?
The truism that uncertainty is a natural inevitable part of life is exponentially amplified now, when so many things are outside our control. So many aspects of social relationships, economy and finance, employment and schooling, physical and mental health are unsettled and unpredictable. It feels even more difficult than usual to know how to respond in the moment, much less to plan for the future. But accepting uncertainty doesn’t mean not having a plan.
So how can one plan when the future is unclear? How can people and/or organizations avoid being paralyzed by uncertainty and advance productively? Here are 10 tips that have emerged from my work coaching and consulting clients:
- Get your bearings.
First of all, deal with your emotions. Acknowledge any discomfort with uncertainty about the future. Accept that the future will be indelibly and irrevocably changed. Allow yourself to grieve for what you miss. (For more on this, please see my blog on Grief, Disappointment and Loss ).
- Take stock.
Take stock of your assets. What human, financial, social, and cultural capital do you have? What un/under-used resources can you draw on? What have you learned from the last few months about yourself or your organization that can shape your steps going forward? Knowing what you have available will allow you to make the most of your resources as you begin to think about how to re-allocate them.
- Stabilize yourself.
Recognize the things that are outside your control and focus instead on the present and how you can take action over things you can control. Identify predictable elements of the situation – some things that you can rely on (e.g., people or organizations who are available to support you) and some that you need to be prepared for even though you don’t know when they will crop up (like knowing you will need an umbrella even if you don’t know exactly when it will rain).
- Gather as much current reliable information as you can.
Keep your finger on the pulse of your environment and minimize blind spots. Use up-to-date information and thinking from reliable experts and objective data sources.
Communicate with ALL of your stakeholders and members of your “village” (not only those who are likely to share your experience). Be humble and don’t make assumptions about their experiences, needs, preferences or habits. Ask them directly about what they are struggling with, what solutions they are looking for, and how you can help.
Use what you are learning to build hypotheses that can inform a flexible plan. Keep revising as new information is available but don’t succumb to “analysis paralysis.” And don’t get hung up on complicated analytic techniques.
- Think “Big Picture.”
Remind yourself of your core values and goals. What is most important to you? How can achieve them in creative ways? Keeping your “North Star” in mind will help you assess how your short-term options line up with what really matters to you. [Remember: Sometimes, it may make sense to choose a circuitous route!]
- Hedge your bets. Don’t put your eggs in one basket.
Given the fluidity of the situation, think about multiple scenarios and alternative response strategies. Anticipate worst case, base case, and best-case scenarios, and think about what steps you could take to mitigate loss and maximize gain. Be prepared for multiple outcomes.
Look for opportunities, be creative and think outside the box. Think about different ways to achieve your goals. Consider alternative uses of your assets to meet current needs. Look to other fields or disciplines for novel ideas that can be applied to your dilemma.
In uncertain times, it is smart to spread the risk by trying several simultaneous “small experiments” that test out multiple possible solutions. Stay curious and be open to learning from all of them – the ones that succeed as well as those that don’t.
- Fail Fast, Fail Cheap and Move On.
As Silicon Valley innovators have shown, when moving in uncharted territory there is much to be learned from failure and things that just don’t turn out as hoped. So, the goal is to prepare for multiple outcomes, and embrace failure but minimize its cost. The trick is remaining agile, continuously attending to feedback, and always trying to respond quickly and decisively as data emerges. This means focusing on inputs and outputs, not just on outcomes, and being alert to serendipitous findings.
- Focus on getting around the next bend.
Agility requires identifying a series of near-term goals to serve as mile-markers, check points and decision gates. These will help you gauge your progress and provide a pause to figure out your next best step forward. Use those points to stop, change direction or continue on the same trajectory, depending on what you learn.
- Create momentum.
One of the challenges of uncertainty is that most of us prefer to stick with comfortable and predictable routines, and to return to a state of equilibrium as soon as possible. It may cause us to cling to the “new normal” prematurely, or to ignore continuing impactful changes that can nullify our fragile progress. That is why it is important to hold on to the agility and adaptability we have found in recent weeks and to continue to build in “improvisational muscles” as part of our characters and organizational cultures.
- Relationships, relationships, relationships.
Strong positive relationships go a long way in providing resilience in the face of uncertainty. Check in frequently with your support network and cultivate a reputation for trust, empathy, and open communication. The more mutual trust, the more others will give you room to maneuver and support your efforts – and empathize with you, as you strive to empathize with them. Embrace transparency and vulnerability so that others can understand your perspective and challenges and ask for help and support. As the PSA’s on TV frequently remind us, “We’re all in this together.”
Finally, try to see the opportunities inherent in uncertainty. In the words of Eckhart Tolle: “As you become comfortable with uncertainty, infinite possibilities open up in your life. It means fear is no longer a dominant factor in what you do and no longer prevents you from taking action to initiate change.”