How much change is too much?

Wouldn’t it be nice to have a bit more certainty again? Like you plan your vacation and you feel pretty sure you’ll actually be able to go? No need for checking the cancellation policy and the Covid related refund policy, no worry about a relatively realistic chance of getting sick in another country, no worry about missing some Covid related new travel restriction. It would be great to feel somewhat sure that you can rely on your kids’ ability to go to Daycare or school. Or to be able to know, that you can plan a birthday party, a wedding or your anniversary with 50+ guests without violating some sort of social distancing rule (or simply making your guests feel awkward about being around so many people at the same time). And when was the last time you felt completely at ease while planning a dinner with a number of friends from out of town.

Now add to this more uncertainty at work, when without fail, there is going to be some change as well. Team members coming and going (something you can be almost sure of in any scaling team or in any team with retention issues). There might be a new strategy or a new way the organization is being structured. The new new role you were just recently promoted to may have new asks of you. The extra project you get staffed on, may ask a completely new approach from you. The market might be changing and you have to get creative about new solutions without a roadmap for it. Your competitors may be coming out with a new product offering that out of a sudden makes your product look less desirable in the eyes of your customers.

Whether we like it or not, change is constant. And nothing stays exactly the way it was last week, or last month, or last year. The complaint, that there is “too much change” and “why can’t mangement just stick to one strategy and then not change it” has been with my work life for as long as I can remember. And at the same time I feel like in the last few years in particular, it’s something I hear with an increased level of urgency and coupled with a sincere longing for more stability. Change and uncertainty make us feel uncomfortable, they ask us to come up with new solutions to problems we may have never solved before (or that do not have an obvious solution).

Add to this the uncertainty and adverse challenges life may throw at anybody in your team. At any given time somebody in your team may deal with a health challenge, grief over the loss of a loved one, the stress of a divorce, a difficult teenager, mental health struggles, addiction, financial difficulties, etc… And while somebody experiences these challenges in their personal life, they tend to be less calm, less focused, more stressed, more likely to make mistakes and as a result less open to more change or able to be resilient in the face of additional challenges.

Naming it and sharing the load

All of this puts especially those leaders in mid level roles into a really tough spot: you are expected to execute on strategies that have often times been set without you feeling much ownership or control over them (and worst case without any or very little of your input). This happens in the context of an ever changing market reality, plus the shifts our pandemic puts into the market for you and the personal struggles of members of your team – obviously all factors entirely outside your sphere of influence. Your success as a leader still depends on your ability to deliver the desired outcomes, even when you may not fully comprehend the “why” behind a strategic shift and while you have no control over those external factors. In times where you may face high levels of uncertainty, perceived low levels of agency, and experience pressure from senior management, the market (or simply your own inner critic), your team looks to you for providing them with direction and certainty. Your direct reports and teams expect you to be an authentic source of information and direction regardless of how comfortable you feel about these yourself. I think it starts with acknowledging how hard that is. Ideally you can find support in pairing with peers who face that same challenge with you.

In middle management you’ll have a really difficult time being effective at explaining strategy and direction if you don’t fully understand those yourself, or if some external factor leads you to question strategy, or if you disagree with the direction your organization is going in general. In senior management you may struggle with selecting the right kind of strategic focus areas, the financial pressures your investors might put on you, challenges from your board or a lack of resources to fund everything that would make sense to do. Plus you may be so far removed from the operational realities of your teams, that you lack insight into the feasibility of certain strategic ideas. Whatever the source of your lack of security on (and potentially comfort with) direction might be, it is quite likely that this translates into your teams not having a clear sense of what success looks like, which makes it very hard for them to deliver the outcomes you and your organization hope for.

Becoming comfortable with uncertainty and being uncomfortable

There is a direct connection between your ability to provide certainty on goals and direction towards your teams and your team’s ability to deal with the constant change surrounding them from sources outside the organization. Your level of comfort to navigate these dilemmas with ease either becomes an additional source of stress for your team, or you find ways to show up calm and with a sense of confidence even if you can’t have all the answers. It all boils down to becoming more comfortable with a state of uncomfort that is simply part of your role. Any element of resilience skills or any activity that anchors you (breathing, mindfulness, yoga, a laugh with a friend, etc…) can help with that.

How knowing your vision and purpose can serve as a source of certainty

If you understand the deeper why behind a strategy, you’ll have an easy time coming up with a different tactic to get to that same goal when one strategic initiative fails or runs into challenges. This is why having a clear long term vision explaining the why and organizational purpose is such an important element of successfully moving an entire organization in a specific direction. There can still be a clear understanding of direction, even if there is a new challenge in the market or when a specific short term strategy fails. This shared aligned understanding of long term direction is also really important in order to involve all team members in successfully coming up with the right kind of short term goals. I don’t think your team can think of and create good OKRs if they lack an understanding of the longer term vision and purpose for the organization.

That purpose is also something that can lead to high levels of engagement from your team, especially if that vision is something that is easy for people to get behind and something that is authentically lived in your organization to serve as a guiding star for your values, your goals and the kind of behaviors that are rewarded. It can be that stable constant piece in a highly volatile unpredictable and uncertain context your teams and you have to navigate every week.

And who knows, maybe with that kind of stable certainty in form of your vision and values you can start looking at that next piece of change as more of a challenge and learning opportunity rather than something that feels undesirable to face. You may start to appreciate that feeling uncomfortable is a signpost of being in situations that challenge you and ultimately see you grow. You know you are on your path to mastery if you are in a space of uncomfortable. The real art is to make sure it does not flip into a space that feels entirely overwhelming. And if it does, take a deep breath, connect with your team, name it, come up with your best conceivable experiment and keep learning. If you look at it that way, then a constantly changing world is one with plenty of opportunity to grow. And if one thing is certain in life, it is that there will be constant change. Being upset about that is not going to make the change go away, but it will take up the time you could invest into curiously exploring that new reality and being the first to come up with a great solution.

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