Sunday, April 12, 2009

Reset: What to do when you don't know what to do

"What do we do to do when we are in important jobs and we really don't know what to do? Many, many people are in exactly that position this evening. Only their spouses know."
e-mail from J., a CEO of a large company in the Midwest

My friend J. is not alone. People I talk with are sensing that we are in a period of fundamental change, where the assumptions of how the world works, of how our lives work, of how we work, are shifting in ways that we can barely see, never mind comprehend and internalize so we can plan for the future.

For our family, it looks like this. I am no longer thinking about retiring, both because our finances look less certain (and just plain less) and because this is the most interesting time I have lived in since the 1960s. I don't want to miss it. And I want to have a hand, small as it may be, in shaping the future in my particular worlds: our firm, Cambridge Leadership Associates, the Kennedy School at Harvard, where I have been teaching for 28 years, and my circle of family and friends.

My wife, Lynn Staley, retired last summer after a distinguished 30-year career in publication design. She received a Lifetime Achievement Award from the Society of News Design. She always worried about what would happen if she stopped working. She couldn't picture anything between 70-hour work weeks and sitting in front of the tv eating bonbons.

Like my friend J. and the people he described, Lynn did not know what to do when she did not know what to do.

But she has found her way to things that she postponed all her adult life: returning to drawing, studying languages, and experimenting in the kitchen, most recently creating her own unique version of a Seder plate (recipe on request). And, perhaps most interesting, important, and satisfying, she's been nurturing relationships and collaborating with friends and family in ways that are just starting to evolve.

What do you do when you do not know what to do?

Professionally, our firm is caught up in this extraordinary period of potential transformation. We are trying our best to live up to the advice we are paid to give to other organizations. But we, too, do not know what to do. Like President Obama, we've never been here before. We're making guesses and trying to invent new ways.

In the past six months, we have been talking and working with organizations in the US and abroad, across all three sectors, Fortune 500 companies, public servants in Europe, philanthropists in the US, all wrestling with some version of that question.

We don't have the answer. But our assumption is that the future is yet to be invented. At no time in my life has there been so much uncertainty about what lies ahead. But that reality suggests that each of us has the opportunity, if not the responsibility, to create the wave, rather than waiting for it to come and trying to ride it forward.

This is the spirit of explorers, entrepreneurs, inventors and artists. They understand what it means to look at the future and see it as a tabula rasa waiting to be filled in. They are motivated by the uncertainty, not crippled by it. They are willing to step into the void, without a road map or a destination.

How can we emulate that spirit in our own lives?

Here are four ideas: live your purpose, run experiments, practice interdependence, and nurture conflict.

First, it all begins with purpose: clarify what is most important to you, distinguish what, of all that you value, you can leave behind in the interests of moving forward.

Here's an example of purpose. My friend Ron David says "Relationships are primary. Everything else is derivative." You may or may not agree, but if he believes what he says, and I think he does, then every little decision he makes, as well as all the big ones, can be seen through that prism.

For me, purpose becomes more relevant because time is running out. "What am I going to do with the time I have left?" When I was in law school in the early 1960's, I signed up to do voter registration in the South. The Dean called me into his office and told me not to go, that it would hurt my legal career. I regret to this day that I took his advice. Frank Rich's column in the Sunday New York Times was all about the economic meltdown giving young people an opportunity to follow their most noble purposes.

Now that the era of boundless consumption is over, what really counts for you? And what can you do to live your purpose, to make it alive for you every day?

Next, adapting to a new reality and living your purpose require running experiments rather than solving problems. Take risks. At work, try new ways of holding a meeting, of dealing with subordinates, of talking to your boss. If e-mail is driving you crazy, stop trying to answer them. Send them back an automatic response, like those answering service messages, saying that you will return their e-mail, "as soon as you can." Hold people accountable for their commitments. Hold yourself accountable for yours: take the risk of showing your kids that you love them by putting them ahead of work. If you are a male who believes in gender equity, don't accept a speaking engagement unless there are a significant portion of women no the program.

Third, after purpose and experimentation, acknowledge interdependence. Give up the illusion that you are an autonomous human being or organization. Instead of saying publicly, "It sure sucks to be Bill," when some thing goes wrong in Bill's division in the company, say "I think we've got a problem."

I spent last week as faculty chair of a one-week leadership program at the Harvard Kennedy School. A woman left the program the day before it ended. Most of the group steadfastly hung onto the belief that we as a community had no role or responsibility in her early departure; either she acted independently, autonomously, or that it was my fault, as the senior authority. But it seems irrefutable that each of us, by what we did or what we did not do, including the woman herself, created the conditions that led to her departure. Collective responsibility is a hard pill to swallow. But we all own a piece of the current reality.

Practicing interdependence means initiating conversations, alliances, partnerships, networks and collaborations that you have never tried before. Look for leadership in your organization - and in your family for that matter – from people at every level.

Fourth and finally, embrace conflict as a precondition for progress. Realize that change is difficult because it involves loss. Our colleague Ron Heifetz says that "People do not resist change. They resist change that they do not think is going to be good for them. They resist loss, or the threat of loss."

There can be no real change without resistance, loss, and conflict, generated by those who have an investment in the status quo. So celebrate conflict as a sign of real work being done. Nurture it, orchestrate it, manage it, but don’t squash it.

Obama continues to model the behavior, reaching out to people across the globe in a way that no US President has previously done. He re-surfaced the immigration issue without a plan, knowing that it would stimulate a response he could not control, but that the conversation would be good for the country. And he's not the only one who is modeling the behavior. A fellow named Joe Works in Humboldt, Kansas, makes trailer hitches. His business is down 50% this year. But instead of laying people off, he is paying his people to do projects in the community, like planting public gardens and rehabbing a church.

People who expected the future to be clear are starting all over again. In the forthcoming era of what Paul Krugman called “boring banks”, people coming into the job market are going to have to figure out what, other than money, floats their boat. The New York Times News in Review had a piece about new kinds of career choices.

Even those addicted to money as an end in itself are having to figure out what to do when they do not know what to do. The Sunday New York Times had a front page story on talented people leaving Wall Street, some of them for more purposeful lives.

Of course, in the end, there is no good answer to my friend J's question about what to do when you do not know what to do. If you are a senior authority figure like he is, you are expected to know the way. So step one is to change those expectations, so your people know you are all in this Reset business together.


Nelle Gretzinger said...

I couldn't agree with you more. Not only is this a reset, it's a rehumanization. We are fallible and we are feeling it right now. Our fallibility is not an indication of weakness, but of our humanity. I have no doubt that our compassion and intelligence, also marks of our humanity, will carry us through these roiling waters.

Rodrigo Silva Ortúzar said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Rodrigo Silva Ortúzar said...


Thanks for those 4 advices. I guess that's what we are needing rightnow as individuals and as a global society.

Have a great time in Italy!

Franklincovey said...

thank you bro, Prasen here from