‘What now?’ moments are inevitable – so how can we learn to prepare for them?

Developing a practice of learning while doing in the face of uncertainty can help us to walk that fine line in the face of the unknown, says Joan P Ball

Who among us hasn’t received news that forced us to adapt in the moment to circumstances beyond our control? Or found ourselves operating at an unsustainable pace without a clear sense of how to make sense of diverse professional and personal commitments and how best to fulfill them without burning out? From high-stakes disruptions like market shifts and job transitions, to day-to-day interruptions in or out of the office, business leaders are often operating in uncharted territory. Unfortunately, while we know these ‘what now?’ moments are inevitable, we devote very little time and attention to preparing ourselves and others to navigate the uncharted territory between ‘what now?’ and what comes next. This leaves us vulnerable to reactive decisions, avoidance, and blind pivots when we face uncertain transitions – especially when there are multiple possible routes forward and we need to discern between them with limited information.

I use a simple but effective scenario-based exercise with teams to illustrate the point.

After showing the group a video of a beautiful sandy beach on a sunny day, I ask them to envision themselves on it and to describe to one another what the scenario would be on their lovely beach. Lively conversations about rest, relaxation and fun come easily, and the tone of the room tends to be playful and collegial. Then, I show them a half-capsized boat and ask them to imagine that they are on the same sunny beach, but they washed up on it after their ship hit a reef offshore. As I’m sure you can imagine, the conversations quickly shift from playful and collegial to intense and focused. Factions form between subgroups who prioritise rescue and those who prefer focusing on building shelters. Temperatures consistently run high among the hundreds of people with whom I’ve run this exercise. Tones become curt, and sometimes combative. And this is just a scenario!

This is not surprising. Over more than a decade of working with individuals and teams as they navigate professional and personal ‘what now?’ moments in real time, I’ve seen similar responses play out time and again.

What’s a ‘what now?’ moment

It is important to note that not all changes and transitions meet the criteria for a ‘what now?’ moment. I define them as any interruption or disruption that causes a person to feel lost, uncertain, disoriented or stuck in the face of an uncertain transition.

Sometimes we face a catalysing disruption or interruption, and the way forward is clear. Leaders and their teams put out those sorts of fires every single day. That’s a pothole or a speed bump. ‘What now?’ moments, on the other hand, throw us off course and lead to ambiguity. They take us outside our plans of action to places where models and best practices no longer serve us. They can spark incendiary emotions and knee-jerk reactions in even the most seasoned leaders, especially if we don’t have a clear and immediate sense of how best to respond.

Our relationship with speed and decisiveness may be partially to blame for this. In a world where faster frequently means better and efficiency is glorified, intentionally making time and space to stop, ask good questions and explore possible routes forward when we face uncertain transitions is viewed as a luxury at best, and indecision at worst. As a result, we often make quick decisions with partial information about situations that are new and emerging – then wonder why we feel lost in transition or wind up in places we never wanted to go as people we never expected (or wanted) to be. That’s why acknowledging the inevitability of ‘what now?’ moments and developing practices to prepare ourselves and our teams to navigate them is a 21st century imperative.

So where do we start?

In an era where we’ve decided that more is better, the sheer quantity of change-related tools and tactics at our disposal can hinder efforts to navigate change, especially in times of uncertainty. Attempts to apply one-size-fits-all solutions to nuanced challenges in shifting circumstances can contribute to rather than alleviate the destabilisation, disorientation and ‘stuckness’ we feel when we face disruption. This is not as counterintuitive as it may seem. In the same way that a building contractor doesn’t use every tool in the truck for every job, we don’t need all of the tools at our disposal to navigate every part of every uncertain transition. Identifying the appropriate tools for the circumstances and engaging them in helpful ways, when they’re needed, is a skill we rarely discuss or practice. We often confuse having a tool with knowing how to use it in practice. As a result, we spend tons of time, energy, and money on learning about change rather than developing consistent and sustainable practices and approaches to help ourselves and others to apply what we learn in the wake of a ‘what now?’ moment.

It is important to acknowledge that there is an uncanny similarity between the ways people respond to ‘what now?’ moments and how people respond to emergencies. Fear. Panic. Fight. Flight. Freeze. That’s why, in the same way we develop plans to respond to fires and other emergencies, developing practices to prepare for ‘what now?’ moments before they happen can help us to respond rather than react in the heat of the moment. I offer a three-step framework – stop, ask, explore – to guide thoughts and actions in the liminal space between a ‘what now?’ moment and what comes next. This is not a list of steps. It is an approach to ambiguity build upon learning by doing in the face of the unknown.

Stop, ask, explore

The nature of any given ‘what now?’ moment varies widely, but one thing is common among them – when they spark our threat response, everyone panics. Even emergency responders and professionals who operate in dangerous environments learn to temper the threat response as part of their training. No matter how experienced or well-trained we are, we are all subject to physical and emotional responses to uncertainty that we perceive to be threatening. This may land uncomfortably – especially for people who are used to putting out “fires” at home and at work on a regular basis. But even the most experienced among us can get caught up in our own incendiary emotional and physical responses at the point of impact of a ‘what now?’ moment. In this way, our initial reaction is sort of like the house is on fire.

If we can prepare for interruptions by learning to stop, ask and explore at points of inflection, we can find more context-appropriate responses to uncertain transitions.

Stop: settle incendiary emotions

If we succumb to our incendiary emotions, we may enter a fear loop, which is when the intense emotions compound feelings of threat, disorientation, distraction and despair. This can lead to further interruption and disruption in the face of uncertainty and change. By pausing to acknowledge and accept when we are in a state of reaction, we can make space to understand what has changed and how best to respond. This might involve not reacting immediately to the excitement of being offered a promotion or the concern about losing a job and creating space to consider the implications before choosing a path forward.

Ask: practice dispassionate curiosity and open transitional learning space

If we intentionally inquire about our new circumstances and open space for learning, we may enter a curiosity loop, which is when tempering the threat response at a point of interruption or disruption is followed by intentional inquiry that leads to increased feelings of agency, hope and motivation. This dispassionate curiosity can be a countermeasure to falling into the fear loop when we face a ‘what now?’ moment. This might involve considering what the promotion would mean beyond money and title. What about the level of responsibility? Does it work with other areas in your life? Does it lead in the direction you hope your career might go?

Explore: create opportunities for learning in action

If the inquiry suggests the position is right for you or leads to a clear path forward after the job loss, this might not be a necessary step. Take the position or move on to a new one, and good luck.

If the inquiry raises new and important questions, there are a number of ways to explore new possibilities. This may involve taking the position on a trial basis to determine if it is the right fit or considering a new industry or cross-training in the wake of a job loss. In any case, exploration in action can help to uncover new possibilities and new routes forward.

This approach requires a combination of trust in our capacity to apply our experience and expertise to a dynamic situation and the humility to accept that we are all beginners when we find ourselves in uncharted territory – which can be difficult for leaders who are rewarded for being decisive. Developing a practice of learning while doing in the face of uncertainty can help us to walk that fine line in the face of the unknown.

Joan P Ball is an educator, transition expert and author of Stop, Ask, Explore. Learn to Navigate Change in Times of Uncertainty (Kogan Page)

Joan P Ball is an educator, transition expert and author of Stop, Ask, Explore. Learn to Navigate Change in Times of Uncertainty (Kogan Page)

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