How To Develop Your Muscle For Managing Through Uncertainty

Robin Moriarty –

Because of the current situation in the world, we are all managing through a period of great uncertainty. This situation is impacting our own personal and professional lives, and it is giving many of us a greater recognition of the impact of our decisions on the lives of those around us.

At home, we are making decisions about social distancing, about how to deal with interactions with others in the grocery store, about how much schoolwork our kids actually need to do, and about how to keep ourselves and those we love safe.

At work, we are making decisions about who can and who cannot work from home, about furloughs and layoffs and unpaid leave, about pivoting to drive revenue streams in new ways (like takeout for restaurants and online classes for personal trainers), and about what the new normal will look like when we get through this crisis.

Some people are struggling with making decisions under uncertainty, while others seem to be moving forward and managing this situation more easily.

As I’ve been wondering what can explain this difference, I began thinking about the years I spent living in Argentina. During those seven years, there were too many crises and moments of uncertainty to count. There were bouts of massive inflation, currency devaluations, government defaults on debt, changes in regulations that introduced price controls, currency controls that put limits on sending money abroad, changes to government retirement savings programs, strikes, demonstrations, massive fires in the agricultural heart of the country, shortages of raw materials, and more.

While none of those gave me experience in dealing with a public health crisis like the Coronavirus, it was almost like a boot camp for managing through uncertain times and for navigating through rapidly changing environments. And I noticed that Argentines seemed much better at this than people who were living in Argentina but who grew up in the US or Europe, perhaps because the Argentines had needed to manage through these types of situations regularly so they were more skilled at it.

And I started to realize that the skills for managing during times of crisis and uncertainty are like muscles, and like all muscles, they need to be developed and used and exercised to stay strong.

Now, I know many people don’t want to think about having to manage through these types of crisis on a regular basis, and it certainly is no fun. But if we’re honest with ourselves, we know that this current crisis will not be the only crisis that we will need to manage through. There will be others. There will be economic, environmental, health, social, and political uncertainties in our lifetimes. It is part of the world we live in. So perhaps getting good at managing through times of crisis and uncertainty is a good idea.

If you want to build that muscle, how can you do it? How can you prepare yourself to get comfortable with uncertainty and see the paths for navigating through it?

While learning can occur during the times of crisis and uncertainty – and often it does as it’s like drinking from a fire hose! – you should be learning during the non-crisis times, too. To build skills during those normal times, I recommend exposing yourself to many different contexts and kinds of situations. With more varied experiences, you’ll be able to view crises and uncertainty from multiple angles and through multiple lenses, which will increase your ability to adapt and adjust, which are two skills required for navigating unknown and uncertain situations.

What kinds of situations should you expose yourself to? Fundamentally, look for those that require you to learn and flex new skills in order to be successful. For example:

Expose yourself to new cultures and new terrains. When we are able to travel again, immerse yourself for 3+ months in a new culture. Don’t stay in a hotel. Buy and prepare your own food. Pay your own utility bills. Deal with a local landlord. Find a gym. Make some friends. It will all open your eyes to the fact that any problem can be solved in multiple ways.

Work in different roles. Instead of always working in sales or marketing or technology, switch functional areas. Try out operations areas or financial analysis or other parts of the business to understand issues from multiple angles. With experience in multiple functional areas, you’ll gain creative problem-solving which will be helpful in times of uncertainty.

Try a new industry. Different industries have different business models and require you to manage differently as a result. Work in a manufacturing organization and in a service organization. Understand how a utility company works compared to a banking organization. In different industries, you’ll need to shift and adapt and adjust to be successful. It’s good practice for the shifting and adjusting you’ll need in times of crisis.

Work in resource-constrained environments. People who have experience in resource-constrained environments have an understanding of what kind of spending is absolutely necessary versus what is optional. This is helpful in times of crisis when difficult decisions about resource allocation must be made quickly.

Work in a company where the rules are not clearly defined because the model is still evolving. This might be a startup or a company that is going through a strategic transformation. These are moments where your muscles of managing through uncertainty can be strengthened because they require defining a new normal.

In any job, get good at asking “what if”and playing out scenarios. Take your scenarios to the awesome extreme and to the awful extreme. What happens in those extreme situations? What would you do in those different cases? Thinking through options of multiple crazy scenarios can help you get prepared for deciding what to do in a real crisis.

Leaders must be able to manage through uncertainty and through crises, but we don’t always get to practice. By putting yourself in diverse situations and being required to manage the multiple issues that inevitably arise from those diverse situations, you can build your muscles for managing through uncertainty. And then you’ll be ready to flex those muscles when you really need them.

Presented by R&D Department of Tanin Peak Sabalan