I’m a big fan of action, and I’m not talking about the John Wick movies with lots of explosions, car chases, and limbs being severed. (Although the series is pretty good! Just not the point of this blog…)
I mean I’m a fan of continued forward momentum and doing things that result in meaningful outcomes. Sometimes, however, my desire to have all the information necessary to make my decision is at odds with the reality of the situation. What do we do when there are high levels of uncertainty?
I believe we can be both uncertain and undeterred.
One of the ways to define the word undeterred is “not discouraged or prevented from acting.” I love this definition because it focuses on the desired action and not being prevented from it. At the same time, it does not mean we have certainty or all of the information we might prefer. As a lifelong lover of a good, executable strategic plan, it definitely throws me off when I’m uncertain about something. It doesn’t matter if it’s a decision about a work project, how to handle a crisis, adapting to construction traffic and closed highways, or trying to decide what I want to be when I grow up (hey, there’s still time!), there’s a 5-step process that works for me to help me navigate.
Step 1: Get calm to get clear. When we are facing situations filled with uncertainty, whether it’s at work or in our personal lives, whether it’s a really extreme level of uncertainty or even a small level of unfamiliarity, a specific area of our brain called the Anterior Cingulate Cortex is activated, which puts our bodies into a stress response. This naturally makes it hard to figure out what to do, so the first step is to get our bodies calm so we can be clear-headed. Deep, slow breaths with an exhalation longer than the inhale is my go-to strategy, but feel free to use whatever you like to help calm your physical stress response.
Step 2: Rewrite your rubric. By this, I mean writing a new set of rules specific to this decision by which you will judge your success. What is possible given the actual set of circumstances, time constraints, lack of information, etc? Be careful not to “should on yourself” – you’ll need a specific set of rules for right now that may be different than your standard approach. Rewriting your rubric will help you keep a clear head when evaluating progress and remain realistic about what is possible in the immediate term.
Step 3: Embrace an iterative mindset. It’s time to release the construct of a finished or perfect product. This stage of the game is all about attempting, adapting, and evolving – and most often doing it quickly. One of my favorite quotes of all time is from the author of The Lion Tracker’s Guide to Life, Boyd Varty. Talking about life and talking about lion tracking, he says, “I don’t know where I’m going, but I know exactly how to get there.” Sure, for your specific situation immediately in front of you, you may not know exactly where it’s going, but you have made decisions in other situations before, and you’ve learned from each of those. You might not know exactly where you’ll end up, but with this process and your previous experience, give yourself a little credit – you do know how to get there. And when you get to what feels like a final result, be prepared to iterate again!
Step 4: Be sure to differentiate for clarity. Risk is not the same thing as uncertainty. Make sure you’re clear on which one you’re dealing with because it will impact the model you use to navigate that situation:
- Risk: Potential danger, inherent in a situation or activity which may be anticipated to some extent
- Uncertainty: The state or condition in which something (e.g., the probability of a particular outcome) is not accurately or precisely known
Step 5: Deploy an uncertainty-based decision-making model. There’s a really great article that gives 5 tips for making decisions in times of uncertainty that you can read HERE
I’ve incorporated some of their strategies into my own model, which is:
- Activate your right brain. Do something to stimulate your creative, right side of your brain before you get started. Paint, draw, dance, move your body with twisting motions to stimulate the release of serotonin…whatever you pick will help get your brain in a more creative state, which will help you generate better outcomes than just relying on our logical, analytical left side of the brain.
- Have a vision, not alternatives (yet). You won’t have all the info, and that’s ok. You can still come up with a vision of your desired outcome, whether or not you know how to get there. Clarifying the vision through the situation will provide an important anchor to keep you on track as you iterate through the process.
- Ask for input & dissent. Once you’ve created your vision and are getting ready to act, bring in others who can help affirm and intentionally help challenge you. You’ll have a better chance of making a good decision when you’ve let others in. (And PS – if you disagree with all of them, you can still do what you want! Think of it as a collaborative gut check.)
- Determine options. Even if you think you hit the right angle on the first try, continue to come up with some options. It will help you test your theory and be a bit more thorough.
- Act rapidly. When things are uncertain, you often won’t have the time you want to make your decision. At some point you have to act, so do so rapidly and then adjust from there.
- Evaluate, iterate, improve, repeat. As many times as needed until it’s done.
- Give yourself (and others!) grace. It won’t be perfect, so don’t expect it to be. Remember you – and the others involved in the situation – are human. You’re doing your best.
Uncertainty is not an excuse for inaction. You can be uncertain and still be undeterred. I’ll be cheering you on!