2021 Innovation Issue: Navigating disruption means letting go of the perception of control

Aaron Kopel founded Project Brilliant, a coaching firm that focuses on agile, an iterative approach to development, team building and project management. (Photo courtesy of Project Brilliant)

“And I’m realizing how I can apply this in my personal life, too!” announced Mark, as the epiphany came to him.

“I think you’ve got it,” I said.

Mark was an executive vice president at a Fortune 100 company with more than 4,000 people reporting to him. He was also a mountain climber who, before settling down and getting married, had scaled three of the five tallest peaks in the world. He was not new to undertaking complicated challenges and was generally fearless out in the real world.

But when it came to handling the massive disruptions his company was facing, he was absolutely frustrated that things weren’t going to plan the way they had for most of his career. In the past, he had focused on studying a problem deeply, developing a precise plan and managing the details closely to make sure the company stayed on track.

For some reason, things were different this time. “It’s like we’ve planned our route, gathered our equipment and supplies, we’re halfway to the peak and suddenly we’ve been hit with a blinding snowstorm,” he said.

“We can’t just hunker down and wait for it to blow over; we have to keep going,” he said. “But we need to make sure we don’t walk off a cliff.”

Mark was clearly looking for options and ideas on how to navigate this situation, and I was his guide.

Some organizations are able to consistently thrive in a volatile environment, and it’s no accident. Is it because their leaders are more intelligent? Is it because they have a better plan?

No. It’s that their leaders have adopted an agile mindset and practice techniques that allow them to adapt faster. They confidently take action and course-correct while others hesitate to even get started. These leaders operate as catalysts for their organizations, creating an environment where change is expected and constant adaptation is the norm.

Over the last 15 years, I have had the privilege to work with many leaders across the country in various industries to help them develop an agile mindset. These approaches and techniques reduce the pressure on leaders to control every detail in situations where complexity and uncertainty make it impossible to do so.

By letting go of the perception of control, they are able to more effectively respond to the realities of challenging situations. This not only provides benefit to their effectiveness at work but also improves their work-life balance. And the great news is that you can use these same approaches to improve your own work and personal life.

Let’s look at 10 key lessons from my work with Mark, to see if you can adopt some of these agile-minded approaches:

1. What type of problem is this? What degree of uncertainty or change is possible in this situation? Is this a problem that is clear and straightforward (making coffee or washing the dishes), something more complicated with a lot of pieces and parts (a jigsaw puzzle or rebuilding a car engine), or a complex situation that is dynamic and evolving (blind date, the stock market, or talking to your teenager about, well, anything)?

Hint: Most situations that involve people (kids, employees, peers, family, customers, etc.) are going to be complex. Complicated work benefits from knowledge, expertise and deeper understanding. However, with complex work, it’s not about being smarter; it’s about being quicker and more responsive.

2. Where are we going? If we’re going to navigate successfully, we need to have an idea about where we’re heading. We don’t have to establish a precise location, but knowing the outcome we’re seeking or the vision we’re hoping to achieve gives us our bearings and a north star. We want to have a directional goal but be open to possibilities. So, avoid nailing down “how to get there” too early, which could create tunnel vision.

3. Is there a right answer? In complex situations, usually not. Things are not black and white but rather a rainbow of evolving possibilities. We can spend countless hours stewing over important decisions and never come to a final, correct solution. Just when we think we have it all figured out, things change—sometimes without our realizing it at the moment.

Indeed, if we’re in a complex situation, things change constantly. This includes disruptive, perhaps negative, changes. But change also provides more options to evaluate. Our agile mindset leads us to continually seek out these opportunities and not get caught up in trying to find the one, right answer or best practice.

4. Can we experiment? The agile-minded approach is to treat each decision as an experiment. If the experiment fails or needs to be modified, we simply make a new decision. Decisions become more like pivot points and are less impactful, thereby reducing anxiety and pressure to always be right. This allows iterative course-correction as the situation evolves.

As you become more and more adept with this approach, you can also consider the opportunity to try multiple simultaneous experiments—placing multiple bets through multiple temporary decisions to see which ones look most promising.

5. Are we on the right path? If we’re going to experiment, feedback loops are crucial. We need to have the ability to sense and respond to what’s really happening. That means paying attention, asking questions, getting people’s thoughts and opinions about our progress—ideally with objective information like hard data.

In a business, we receive internal and external feedback from real-world usage of what we’ve created, although surveys, customer-service scores and sales numbers can give us insights, too. In our personal lives, feedback loops can come from friends, family, neighbors and colleagues who care about us and our goals and can help us see things we can’t about our progress and what we’re trying to accomplish.

6. Everything is a choice. We have habits and default behaviors—things we do unconsciously at times. We can get into a rut and not realize it. If we want to improve our effectiveness in complex situations, it’s helpful to take a step back and recognize that we have a choice in everything we do.

Being intentional about our choices on known issues is critical in becoming more effective in a complex environment with many unknowns. The hardest part about changing habits is the follow-through, but we can employ triggers to help us. The easy one is to stick a Post-It note reminder on your desk.

Other ideas might be to set a calendar reminder or find an accountability buddy—someone you tell about your goal who will help you hold yourself accountable by checking in with you. Siri and Alexa might be good buddies here.

7. Effectiveness over efficiency. Another mindset shift is to focus on value over quantity. Many people take great pride and derive a certain degree of self-worth from their ability to be busy and generate a lot of activity. But being busy means you don’t have time to think creatively and strategically.

When your brain is active with tactical and tangible work, it’s often trying to find ways to make that work more efficient through repeatability. When dealing with complex problems, repeatability is rarely possible and we need the time to think clearly about the adaptations needed for next time.

Rather than being busy, let’s be ruthless about prioritizing what’s most important. You have a No. 1 priority today or this week, and it’s probably a lot more important to get that one thing “done” than to get 10 lower priorities partially done. Identify that top priority and give yourself the mental space and focus to think creatively about how to address it.

8. Keep it simple. One of our toughest challenges is deciding what not to do. We often have grand ideas and large goals.

The art and skill of breaking large, complicated goals into smaller pieces is important. But the next, and most important, step is often missed completely. Once you break down that big goal, not all pieces are equally important and not all of them need to be completed to achieve the intent of the goal.

For example, we might decide we want the best-looking yard on the block, so we brainstorm about all the features the best yard would have and what it would look like. Rather than committing to everything upfront, we break the goal into pieces such as lawn care, landscaping, flower beds, trees and shrubs.

We foresee thousands of dollars and three months of personal labor on the horizon. The first weekend, we prioritize the landscaping and lay down a bunch of mulch. The next weekend, we put in some really nice flowers, and so on. By the time we get to the shrubs, we look around and decide that it looks pretty good and we’re satisfied with the results.

So, let’s stop for now and save the shrubs (and some cash and sweat) for next year. We have an awesome yard and have freed up the next few weekends to enjoy it (or get to something else on that to-do list).

9. Early and often. Accomplishing things early and often, along with keeping them simple, gives us a sense of accomplishment and builds momentum to continue. We can show some small early wins and maybe even draw other people to our cause.

When you work on something for a long time without a light at the end of the tunnel, you start to question the time you’re spending and whether you’re still going in the right direction. This is true in situations where you’re trying to influence others, as is the case with organizational change.

A good way to handle this is to create a schedule with consistent and repeatable short-term deadlines. In the agile world, we call these sprints, and they work in real life, too. Just ask my kids about their weekly chore schedule.

10. Maintain focus. Your brain can’t actually multitask. When you try to handle multiple simultaneous tasks, your brain switches focus among the tasks. Task switching has a cost—we call it the “switching tax,” because you are shifting context and losing productivity on each task as you move back and forth.

Research shows that, for every additional task you try to do simultaneously, you lose about 20% of productivity. When you switch between drastically different kinds of activities—such as trying to do your monthly budgeting at the same time you are trying to follow a recipe to make dinner—the switching tax grows. With an agile-minded approach, we want to limit the number of simultaneous activities and focus on getting things over the finish line and into the “done” column of our task list.

This not only feels good and creates a sense of accomplishment, but it actually allows us to get more done.

Using the patterns above and others, Mark was able to move away from a fixed mindset into a growth mindset in which he was constantly experimenting and evaluating new possibilities. It was certainly uncomfortable at first, and probably still is, but he became more comfortable with being uncomfortable over time.

It’s hard work to continually address complex problems with an agile mindset as we are continually on the lookout for that next opportunity to change direction. Mark started to get more and more of his leadership and organization into this mindset over the months and years. He has seen great results internally, in that he and his people are happier and more engaged at work and are working on more important and innovative products.

Mark has also seen the financial results of this mindset shift, as his organization’s value has increased 223% over the last five years through innovation and the ability to act on opportunities quicker than competitors.

I hope you find some value in these lessons for yourself and company and become more effective all around.•

Kopel is the CEO of Project Brilliant, an Indianapolis-based business agility consulting firm. Learn more about agile leadership topics at: www.projectbrilliant.com/agile-for-leaders.

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