Effective Change Management When the Change is Unpredictable

Change often happens with little or no warning. We can’t always have the right skills or a bullet proof plan for when it occurs. We might be young and inexperienced as a project manager or our sales team could be faced with a an angry frustrated client while making a routine visit.

How do we effectively manage change or surprises in life and business? How do wefear of change prepare ourselves and our teams?

Practically any sport or team competition is a great way to visualize how successful people think through these sudden dilemmas. Peter Bregman, author of 18 Minutes: Find Your Focus, Master Distraction, and Get the Right Things Done, recently wrote a compelling story that shows how we can prepare ourselves for change:

When my friend Sam invited his new girlfriend Robyn to join him for a sailing trip, he was relatively new to the sport. He had pretty strong skills but not a lot of experience. She had neither.

They were expecting it to be a long sail — about seven hours — and spent several days preparing. On the day of the sail, the weather was overcast but they decided to go anyway. Several hours into the trip — as fate would have it right in the middle of one of their crossings — the wind picked up, and dark clouds blew in. Directly in their path, less than a mile away, was a thunderstorm. They were exposed, with lightning crackling around them.

Bregman goes on to explain how Sam avoided panicking and literally stopped the boat to quickly discuss options and risks with Robyn. When they made their decision to go through the storm and succeeded, Robyn told Bregman what impressed her about Sam’s decision-making and leadership style. ‘I think the best thing Sam did was not pretend he knew what he was doing. I love him for that. He didn’t posture. He didn’t rush into anything. And he didn’t push me into anything. But he didn’t freeze, either. We paused, we talked, and even though we were in a scary situation with imperfect information, we made a thoughtful decision fast.’

Who wouldn’t want to possess those skills of managing risk and ambiguity in times of stress?In a time when we’re only guaranteed to be surprised, where risk can’t be avoided and any attempt to plan the future is sure to meet up with more change, we all need a plan to “navigate ambiguity” as Bregman so aptly puts it. “We need to be prepared to be unprepared.”Here’s what he suggests:

  1. Stop the boat. If you’re in a meeting, take a bathroom break. In your office, get up and take a walk. In other words, do what we so rarely give ourselves an opportunity to do: think.
  2. Assess Your Actual Options. Don’t waste time wishing things were different or trying to force-fit your previous plan to the new, unforeseen situation. Start with a blank slate: think about the outcome you want given the new situation, the information you have at hand, and the resources available. Then lay out your options.
  3. Sail. Based on your new assessment, make a decision, and commit. Even if the decision isn’t ideal, even if it’s not giving you everything you hoped for originally, accept that it’s the best under the circumstances and move forward without hesitation.

Any other suggestions on how to plan for the unexpected?

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