Thriving in Uncertainty

Challenging times require new skills. With some foresight and effort, tech leaders can not only be resilient but can thrive in uncertain times.
January 24, 2022
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To say the world has been dealing with significant uncertainty over the past 18 months may be the understatement of the year. Tasks that were once so routine that they didn’t merit a millisecond’s consideration, from how and where we worked to commuting have been changed only to be changed again.

Many workplaces rocked from preparing for economic calamity and freezing expenditures to dealing with shortages in the face of record demand. On the personal front, many are weary and have experienced psychological lows and perhaps the occasional high brought upon by more time with family or flexibility in life and work.

It can be difficult thriving in this type of environment, especially with the temptation to merely throw up one’s hands in the face of so much uncertainty, and surrender any ability to shape your personal and professional future.

Starting with You

Responsibilities don’t start and end with our workplace role for most of us. While you may be a tech leader by day, you’re likely a caregiver, friend, parent, partner, and a variety of other roles. Many of us play several roles at any given time and now have to rapidly change from providing leadership and strategy to our organizations to consoling a child just outside the view of our webcams.

It isn’t easy to bring your best to this multitude of roles without taking care of yourself. As the calendar turns to a New Year, it’s a great time for reflection on your current mental, physical, and emotional state. Avoid the urge to launch into some dramatic, but likely untenable, regime of “resolutions.” If you’ve been sitting on the couch for 24 months, resolving to run a marathon in March probably isn’t going to do much more than creating frustration and more stress.

However, you should also avoid the urge to make vague promises to yourself like “eating healthy” or “reducing stress.” Just as you would manage a work-related endeavor, set realistic and measurable goals, with checkpoints along the way to measure and adjust progress. Allow for adjustment of a “stretch” goal, or perhaps even the ability to make the goal loftier.

Disconnect from Expectations

Perhaps the worst part of recent uncertainty is the constant adjustment and abandonment of expectations. Vaccines promised us a route back to “normal” before the parade of COVID variants began, just as most office workers have seen a series of “return to work” dates postponed or abandoned.

The problem with pinning your plans and hopes on external or environmental factors is that they’re generally outside you or any other individual’s influence. No one can predict or control a pathogen, any more than a government official can create a policy that’s not subject to change based on outside factors.

One tool that has worked for me during these uncertain times is the simple mantra to “expect nothing and embrace everything.” Rather than pinning hopes and dreams to an event or condition that may or may not materialize, expecting nothing frees you to deal with reality as it occurs. 

This might seem fatalistic until you implement the second part of the mantra and “embrace everything.” An uncertain return to work date might mean more time at home to finish a project or spend with family, while a canceled trip might provide an opportunity to explore areas closer to home.

If you expect nothing, you’ll rarely be disappointed by circumstances. And if you can embrace some part of whatever life throws at you, you’ll find surprise and delight rather than shock and frustration in the unplanned.

Creating a Thriving Workplace

One of the key reasons to consider your well-being first and foremost is that it allows you to be a more effective leader. No matter how effective a “game face” you possess, you’ll never be operating at your best as a leader if you’re on the edge of coping with everyday life.

Once you’ve practiced the habits that make you resilient in your personal life, you can apply similar thinking to your tech leadership role. If the uncertain market for technology talent has become problematic, explore flexible staffing and nearshoring and create scalable capacity while letting someone else worry about sourcing talent.

If you keep having to restructure your project portfolio as the external environment changes, rather than focusing primarily on discrete projects, focus on broadly applicable capabilities and create more organizational flexibility. Perhaps external factors allow you to “kill” a legacy system or unproductive program and provide the perfect rationale for a new effort that’s long been stuck in debate and approvals.

In addition to your usual metrics and measurements when judging the performance of your initiatives, add one around whether the program provides more flexibility for your organization. This applies to every tech leadership consideration, from acquiring new hardware and software to implementing a new methodology or even something as mundane as a team meeting schedule.

Encourage your team members to share how they’ve coped with uncertainty, whether through “home office hacks” or interesting initiatives they’ve heard of other companies implementing. Uncertainty is a two-way street, and one direction leads to risk aversion and retrenchment, but the other can lead to experimentation and innovation.

The simple, conscious (and sometimes tricky) act of seeing an uncertain environment as an opportunity for exploration and innovation quickly becomes contagious. Many of the leaders I’ve spoken to mention that they’ve seen more creativity and innovation in their teams in the last 18 months than in years of prior efforts. 

There’s more than enough fear and loathing to go around. Use your leadership platform to acknowledge the opportunities to defenestrate the old norms and constraints, and turn uncertainty into opportunity. You’ll engage your teams and do great things for your organization while you’re at it.

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