This is the time for looking forward and back, for farewelling the old year and welcoming the new, for learning from the past and noticing our longing for the future.
The second half of 2016, particularly, has been bruising, both personally and collectively. In June, I sat in a living room in California with a friend from England, and we listened to the BBC analyze the initial Brexit returns, our merry chatter dropping away to shocked silence as the news got more and more grim. In July, I woke to texts from friends wondering if my family—holidaying in France—had been in Nice when the truck plowed through the crowd (we were not). In August, I had a small lump near my 2014 cancer biopsied and found benign, and in September I had it removed and found it wasn’t so benign after all.
As the US election picked up steam, for me there were scans and surgeries and healing and waiting and worrying. It took until November for the next phase to be more clear: My cancer recurrence was local and finally (after four surgeries) removed; Trump was president. Perhaps to mark those two occasions (and who knows how many others) New Zealand had had one of its biggest earthquakes in recorded history. My family, friends, and clients were, er, shaken though unharmed, and the earth itself has been rather more rumbly than usual since then.
Is it any wonder I’m closing the door on 2016 with a rather significant bang? Of course, 2017 will begin with an inauguration and radiotherapy—almost on the same day—and so I’m blinking nervously into the future as I turn my back on the past. I am fumbling around in the dark, looking for guidance.
What is it complexity theory has to offer us as we peer slantingly into 2017? For me personally and for us collectively, I think it becomes relatively clear that there is no knowing what happens next. None of us are gazing confidently into the new year believing we can plan our way through it, that we know what will happen to markets or politics or just about anything, really, in the year to come.
At one point in the middle of my cancer maze, my surgeon said, “Jennifer, the science isn’t going to help us here. We’re never going to know what the very best evidence-based practice is. This is now more your business than mine. What do you know about making decisions in uncertainty?” This question isn’t just useful for me in the middle of my personal health decisions, but for us collectively. What do we know about making decisions when we don’t know what’s next?
- Think optionality. When you’re looking at an uncertain future, one way to decide is to think about whether your decision increases or decreases your potential options. Narrowing decisions are great for times when you know what the future holds; opening decisions are great for times when you have no idea. If the job market has been really stable for years and you know there’s a lawyer shortage, training as a lawyer makes good sense. If the job market is all over the place and you have no idea what jobs will be in demand in three years, a more generalist training or a faster boot-camp style approach is probably better.
- Go outside. A fundamental trap of the way we tend to think about the world and make decisions, is to rely on what’s happened before to guide us to what is likely to be next. This reflex is so ingrained in us that we probably won’t notice that we’re doing it. But in order to come up with possibilities that fit this uncertain time, we need to go outside the boundaries of our previous choices and create new possibilities that perhaps we haven’t thought of before. One way to get yourself to think outside the ordinary is to literally get outside the office. Find a new perspective—in nature, at an art gallery, in a novel or a play (check out this cool story about doctors learning to see at art museums).
- Don’t settle for two possibilities. If you’re trying to decide between two things in a period of great uncertainty, it’s time to develop another possibility or two. The Heath brothers, in their book Decisive, tell us that when you’re making a decision between two things, you’ve generally cut down too many of the options. In my hazy cancer battle, I was trying to make a decision between having one major surgery (just in case there was more cancer there) or not having any more surgery at all (because the odds were fairly high there was no more cancer left). When my surgeon asked how I would decide, I blurted out, “Well, I would be counseling someone to come up with a third way.” My surgeon and I kicked around what that would be, and together we came up with an option that got me the safety I needed without the steep physical and emotional costs of the more common procedure. It was such a good outcome, in fact, that the panel of oncologists my surgeon tested the idea with were surprised they hadn’t thought of it before. It often happens that the best decision for the moment isn’t one of the obvious ones.
- Lean into the uncertainty. In a time like this, you can’t know what’s going to happen next. You can’t know how your decision will turn out. As you catch yourself playing out all the possibilities and multiplying either the fabulous benefits or the horrific costs of what you’re doing, remember that in times of uncertainty, we cannot predict more than a step or two ahead of us. So save that energy and remind yourself that you can’t know. You can think of what a terrible outcome might be (and estimate how likely that is) and what a spectacular outcome would be (and how likely that is). But you cannot think it all through well enough to know for sure what will happen next. Your job isn’t to be right about things, it’s to have thought it through well enough that you’re guessing the negative outcome isn’t ruinous, and you can forgive yourself if it happens. Once you get that far, you’ve thought enough. We were trying to make a decision about how to staff a tricky gig, and Wendy pointed out that I was looking under every possible rock for what might go wrong and over complicating the possibility. We talked about what was in the probable band of what could go wrong, how we’d live with an outlying negative possibility, made our decision, and moved on. It’s easy to spin around in complexity; leaning in stops the spin.
- Think about who you want to be. I love what researcher Sheena Iyengar has learned about decisions. Really tough decisions are great, in a way, because if it’s so hard, it probably means we’re looking at two good options. (She didn’t allow for things like cancer treatment, where we’re sometimes looking at two crappy options, though. But the major rules are the same in either case.) She urges us to consider the identity questions tough decisions have embedded inside them. One of the reasons they’re tough is because we’re making decisions about who we are and who we want to be. In uncertainty, this is an especially helpful perspective. You don’t know how it’s going to turn out, but you can think a little about the person you’d most like to become. What decision does that person make? Trying to be more bold? More careful? More generous? What decision does the bolder / cautious/ generous you want you to make? I needed to decide whether to take a gig that was inconvenient but that might lead to work for others at Cultivating Leadership. As the Chief Cultivating Officer, I’ve been trying to become a more thoughtful leader of the collective. That potentially-better me would take the gig. I got on a plane.
Of course none of these ideas will help you all the time, and some of them might fight against each other. All of that is pretty common in complexity. But remembering that we are all facing into the new year with perhaps more than our usual dose of uncertainty might help us all be a little kinder and more patient with one another—and with ourselves.
No matter what decisions you have to make, I hope this year smiles on you in the most unexpected and delightful ways. Uncertainty can be unsettling, but it can also lead to fabulous outcomes you’d never have imagined.
(PS I’m blogging about this current trip to cancer island. If you want to follow along at home, email me and I’ll send you the link.)