I realized I didn’t handle uncertainty well when my husband and I both found ourselves out of work at the same time.
For our entire careers, we had played on opposite ends of the spectrum: Jon always in a steady, predictable, you-can-always-count-on-my-income kind of a job. I was always in a risky, entrepreneurial, doing-what-I-love-while-changing-the-world situation.
We had health benefits and Whole Foods grocery money and that blissfully false sense of security you get from thinking things will always be this way.
Until they aren’t.
My fear started to show itself in irritability and blame.
When I was tired, I blamed Jon.
When the kids dropped the corn puffs from their Sunrise Crunchy Vanilla cereal on my clean kitchen floor, I was irritated at Jon.
When I didn’t get the help I needed — even though I was unwilling to ask for it — I blamed Jon.
When I was met with even an ounce of discomfort, I put it on Jon.
In my head, I was the one who had it all together. I was the one who could handle our career transitions best. I was the one with a high tolerance for ambiguity and risk. I was the one who was an organization designer, teaching companies how to move through change and uncertainty for a living.
I was the one who was falling apart.
Blame was my way of skirting the pain I wasn’t prepared to feel. It was my way of dealing with what felt so overwhelming and unmanageable. It was how I was coping with the unbearable uncertainty that had suddenly fallen like a dark, heavy blanket all around us.
Making a Mess
“As human beings, we share a tendency to scramble for certainty whenever we realize that everything around us is in flux. In difficult times, the stress of trying to find solid ground — something predictable and safe to stand on — seems to intensify. But in truth, the very nature of our existence is forever in flux. Everything keeps changing, whether we’re aware of it or not.”
— Pema Chödrön
Uncertainty creates tensions and fears, emotions and resistance. It breeds stories — often catastrophic and very untrue ones — that run our lives and ruin our relationships. Especially at work, in an attempt to bring safety and certainty to our chaotic environment, we cope by controlling it with very certain things like:
having “a plan”
always being right
making up untrue stories about others
acting as though we have it all handled
telling people exactly how to do their jobs
saying yes to everything
creating red tape and linear processes, policies, and rules to follow
But this stuff makes a bigger mess than learning to move through the ambiguity.
We swim in uncertainty nearly every minute of every day of our lives. It’s at home as much as it’s with us at work. As humans and companies, we have a responsibility to learn how to navigate uncertainty, which requires us to operate differently.
The Stuff We Don’t Want to Touch
My particular approach to organization design (OD) is a hard won amalgam of systems and culture. When I was first learning the craft, my exposure to the practice of OD was heavy on systems. As a former entrepreneur, it was an entirely different way of looking at a business; companies as dynamic systems meant to be engaged with rather than controlled.
I learned a practice of sensing and responding to how these systems behaved based on the “signals” they produced. Fresh out of my 14-year role as a CEO of my own company, I was so attached to the front row seat I had on the emotional roller coaster of planning and payroll and people. All of those humans with faces and families to feed.
Working as a consultant in the belly of the beast of multi-billion dollar organizations, I watched temporary relief wash over these companies as they changed the way they ran meetings, installed improved operating rhythms, and learned to prioritize. Yet something lurked beneath the surface that was never touched.
These humans were asleep.
They were all wearing costumes.
They were tired and afraid.
They were pretending they had it all figured out.
Some experience in the trenches, an intentional mid-life undoing, and a couple years later, I had the opportunity to study with Brené Brown. Adding her work to my OD mix made the unspoken approachable. She had the courage to have a conversation with the world that we all needed to hear: if we keep hiding from the vulnerability required to be human; if we keep hiding from ourselves and each other, we will never feel whole and our lives and companies will suffer. As a certified facilitator of her daring leadership curriculum, I took her fierceness and bravery to the hard edges of the systems work.
And I watched as these companies cracked wide open.
We Have to do Both
Humans and companies don’t come equipped with the capability to competently navigate uncertainty or complexity; we have to be taught ways of working that support us in becoming better versions of ourselves. There are two integral parts to this: ways of being and ways of doing.
Ways of being are the mindsets, behaviors, and belief systems we have as individuals. It’s how we are in relationship with each other. It’s how we choose to be and work together. You could say ways of being is our “inner work.” It’s typically the hardest work to do — especially at scale — and, as humans and companies, we often find it to be the last thing we want to spend time or dollars on because it’s uncomfortable, arduous, slow, and difficult to quantitatively measure. That being said, ways of being is a non-negotiable component for all the things we want.
In our day-to-day, this means all of our humans learning to practice self-awareness and self-inquiry, understand the role of vulnerability and boundaries, how to manage our emotions, and recognize when we’re engaged in self-protection. It’s learning to challenge our stories, and build the muscles for courage, empathy, compassion, and generosity.
Ways of doing are the actions our companies operationalize so we can do the work. It’s the systems, processes, and pathways we use to operate as a business. Ways of doing can include things like how we measure, prioritize, or design and disseminate vision and strategy. It can also be things like the processes we follow to make our products or services, how we use money, how we budget, plan, allocate resources, hire, determine compensation, make decisions, or even do our daily work tasks in our own unique roles and on our teams.
In practice, ways of doing means building flexibility into the systems and processes we use to operate every moment of our uncertain and constantly changing environment. It’s teams across the company learning to integrate enough infrastructure to ground and center, but with the freedom to adjust — sometimes daily.
Most companies only do pieces or parts of ways of being and ways of doing.
With ways of being, we are teaching humans to be better leaders. To stop pretending we have all the answers. To share power and share the load. To practice being open and generous. To use agency and initiative. To build the courage to experiment and be wrong, and do hard and vulnerable things like being honest, setting boundaries, and holding people accountable.
With ways of doing, we are teaching humans how to build the conditions to shape flexible systems used to do our jobs and operate the company. We’re teaching humans to break big moves into small ones, and implement changes from their learnings as they see fit.
We need the behavioral strengths of ways of being WITH the systems strengths in ways of doing.
When we don’t teach ways of being — and only teach ways of doing — humans don’t want to have conversations about changing the systems that get in our way. We continue to think systems are infallible and we bask in the comfort and false security of rules and processes. We become robots; machines with no heart where we push buttons and run programs. We lose creativity and curiosity. Everyone does what they’re told and no one thinks for themselves.
When we don’t teach ways of doing — and only teach ways of being — we are helping humans come alive with connection and belonging, but then leaving them to constantly bump up against the constraints of how they work together to do their jobs. We lack the operating rhythms that give us some semblance of control over the ebb and flow of ambiguity without gripping for dear life. We struggle to identify valuable work that moves teams and companies forward. We say yes to everything, do nothing well, fail to make decisions or learn from our work. We plan for months or years on end and lie to ourselves about how that keeps us safe.
Any improvement to either ways of being or ways of doing is progress, but as Dave Snowden tells us, we have to do both. And we can do this by facing vulnerability, making small moves, experimenting, and working together to hold the load and steer constantly.
As humans and companies, we will continue to be faced with the complex and uncertain environments we call work. Together, the principles and practices of ways of being and ways of doing guide the ways of working for a healthy, thriving, self-optimizing, self-managing company where it feels good to come to work.
Saving us From my Fear
Dodging the discomfort and vulnerability of uncertainty had become a routine for me both in life and in my marriage. When I started to notice the blame I was projecting on Jon about our unemployment adventure, I could finally do something about it, but it wasn’t going to be easy. There were deeper patterns in our nearly 20 year marriage that were here for both of us to dig into.
Our therapist helped us identify a tilt — as she called it — where Jon had built a pedestal for me that I gladly claimed. I’d been a leader since I was in middle school. He, an unconditionally supportive feminist, was more than happy to let me pave the way for us.
Years of me stepping up and Jon stepping back gave way to a learned helplessness at home; Jon had practiced giving up his agency to me, and I played an enormous part in taking it. Every time we were faced with shifting sands and large amounts of uncertainty, I swooped in to save us from my fear.
I was the one who always led us out of the darkness.
I was the one who always had the plan.
I was the one who always hustled to draft and execute every road map to avert the pain.
When the uncertainty of no jobs hit, I didn’t have the strength to hold us up anymore; I was being crushed under the weight I had been carrying for both of us nearly our entire marriage. I was blaming Jon for all of my discomfort, and I was contributing to the very conditions I was running from.
I just didn’t have the tools to notice, let alone navigate the uncertainty any differently, so I dodged it with the only equipment I had: blame.
The humans in our companies are no different.
Finding our Footing in Uncertainty
At the heart of it, we’re all a bunch of five year olds — or maybe we’re eight or fifteen — going to work, doing our thing. Often without noticing, we tell ourselves stories that sound something like this:
I don’t know enough.
I’m going to disappoint them.
They don’t like me.
They don’t see me.
They don’t think I’m good enough.
I’m not good enough.
I’m afraid I won’t be OK.
I don’t fit in here.
Whether we’re an executive, a manager leading a team, an individual contributor, have seniority, or are just at the beginning of our careers, these stories play in the background as we go about our days, doing our work with our colleagues, and interacting with our customers.
In Leadership and the Art of Growing up, Jerry Colonna refers to an incredibly important and basic understanding of our necessities as humans. In a nutshell, each of us require three things: safety, love, and belonging. When any of these are in question, we show up as our false selves, which is often a younger version of ourselves. We behave into the patterns of old ghosts from our childhood that kept us safe, but now subconsciously run us and keep us small.
Brené Brown would add to this conversation with armor. The self-protection we use to safeguard ourselves from vulnerability — the emotion we feel when we’re faced with high levels of uncertainty, risk, and emotional exposure. As she talks about in many of her books as well as Dare to Lead, this armor prevents us from growing, being seen, and having meaningful connection with others; the reason we’re here on this earth in the first place.
As humans, we’re really good at telling ourselves stories that trigger our armor and become threats to our safety, love, and belonging.
Because of this, sometimes at work we judge and criticize. As Brené Brown often talks about in her work, we push, prove, perfect, and hustle to be seen. We gossip and backchannel. We build really big, invisible walls around our souls and our turf. We play favorites. We reward exhaustion. We reminisce and get stuck in nostalgia. We abuse our power, discriminate, and harass. We blame and shame. We wear costumes made from these ideals we’ve built from bullshit.
Uncertainty exacerbates all of this.
If we’re honest about it, we’re constantly looking externally for affirmation that we’re OK. Constantly looking for validation we’re doing a good job. Constantly looking for acknowledgement we’re worth something. When we add chaos, ambiguity, and high stress to this mix, it’s like putting all of our deepest wounds and biggest flaws under a floodlight for all the world to see.
Uncertainty is vulnerability and that’s difficult for all of us, but especially when we don’t have the tools to find our center.
When we don’t know what’s important to us, how to be true to ourselves, or where our boundaries are, we go straight to blaming others for the discomfort that comes along with it — just like I did with Jon. Or we shrink under the weight of the overwhelm, giving up our agency, waiting for others to give us permission to use our power, show up, and be seen.
Most of us aren’t very practiced at navigating uncertainty, so at work we come off as though we’re too cool for school and we’ve got it all figured out. We’re tough and argumentative or we over-commit and people please. We’re cynical, sarcastic, and pretend we don’t care.
We try fixes like spending months of money on plans that become obsolete as soon as we leave the boardroom. We patrol processes and systems that teams build pathways around because they’re antiquated. We pile tape upon red tape. We make rules. We become know-it-alls. We tell people what to do. We cover up mistakes.
These efforts and armor don’t give us footing in uncertainty. They only support us in lying to ourselves about the real reason we’re uncomfortable: we have no idea what we’re doing and we’re not sure whether we’re going to make it out OK.
We can teach humans the tools to navigate uncertainty so we normalize what it’s like to struggle with it. We can make it OK to talk about how we’re handling it so we understand and help each other rather than show up like children.
Tool Kit for Ways of Being
Ways of being is a layering of skills that can come from many places, sources, and methods. I’ll speak to the power of Brené Brown’s work — in addition to Jerry Colonna and Reboot’s radical self-inquiry and coaching practices — because it invites humans to be real and true. I’ve also seen its magic in action and at scale.
It doesn’t matter where the tools are coming from. What’s important is to equip the humans in our organizations with the ability to navigate uncertainty, be who they are, and do their best work.
The foundation of ways of being can be taught with these five tools:
 How to find our center in our values and integrity
Organizational values have become such a watered down exhibition of nothing that most of us disregard them. That’s because much of what we’ve experienced with values is just words on walls or prose in some handbook while the actual experience is empty promises.
But learning to live from our values as humans is a staple in navigating uncertainty. It gives us a place of grounding especially when everything is always in flux. It teaches us that putting our values into action builds courage to be who we are, no matter what we face. No matter the outcome.
Knowing our values gives us a home base in some of the toughest situations we face at work: having truthful and tough conversations, giving and receiving honest and meaningful feedback, holding people accountable, and participating in shaping the systems of the company as well as the growth of others.
When narrowing down values, there is a tendency to pick things that sound good or that we’ve heard from others at work that feed our ego. I once worked with a beautiful human who initially identified his values as adaptability and making a difference:
Adaptability in responding and tackling any and all situations at work.
Making a difference where delivering for a client is done no matter the cost.
Our values give us strength and confidence when we’re in dark spots. They are the foundation of our boundaries, why we have the courage to say no, the reason we show up even when we’re scared, and why we keep promises to ourselves even when we’re going to disappoint others.
So, for this human, rather than adaptability and making a difference, the values of connection and joy spoke louder to who he authentically is and what he wants to cultivate in his life as the human being he’s becoming. These values have challenged him to honor and repair some really important relationships at work, redefine collaboration, and continue to step into the leader he wants to be. All having abundant ripple effects on his well being, his colleagues, and the company.
 How to leverage vulnerability and boundaries
“Vulnerability is the birthplace of innovation, creativity, and change.”
— Brené Brown
When humans and teams are struggling, a little broken, and finally willing to admit they could use some help, I start with a real talk session by asking what Jerry Colonna calls the three magic questions:
- What am I not saying that needs to be said?
- What am I saying that’s not being heard?
- What’s being said that I’m not hearing? (These are the things I can’t bear to hear because I may have hurt, disappointed, or caused someone pain.)
Even the most guarded humans cannot help but accept the invitation to put down the weight of what they’ve been carrying. It’s the first step out of conditions they’ve created but have no idea how to change. And it’s vulnerability that sets us free.
Vulnerability holds the keys to every single door we want to blow wide open as organizations, but being vulnerable is also incredibly hard for all of us. It feels so risky and brings a lot of baggage; most of us were taught that vulnerability is weakness or a weapon that will ultimately be used against us.
When we learn more about vulnerability, we understand that we don’t have to be afraid of it. It doesn’t have to run us. And that actually, when we learn to effectively engage with it — especially at work — we build courage and strength in ourselves that unlocks the things we really want in our lives. In addition to our love, safety, and belonging, vulnerability gives us the resilience and adaptability we need to cope at work. It gives us the trust and connection we need on our teams to do our jobs well.
With uncertainty chasing us every moment at work, we have to learn how to trade blame and self-protection for vulnerability and conversations about our boundaries.
Leveraging vulnerability starts with understanding the myths and building the muscle of noticing when we’re avoiding it. It’s asking:
- How can I better show up for myself when I’m walking into vulnerability and working through uncertainty?
- What are the boundaries I need to have in place to take care of myself in the process?
- What do I need from my colleagues? What does it look like to show up for them?
 How to engage with the world without our armor
Armor is self-protection. It’s the behaviors we use to protect ourselves from vulnerability — those familiar feelings of uncertainty, risk, and emotional exposure.
In Brené Brown’s work, she explains how we reach for armor to protect our ego and fit in when we’re in situations where we think being liked or respected is at risk. This is especially true at work where we may be swimming in uncertainty, but we definitely don’t want to be wrong or not look smart enough. We want to avoid that feeling of less than. We don’t want to jeopardize our necessities of love, safety, or belonging.
Growing up, I learned how to avoid vulnerability by protecting myself with the armor of hustling and busyness. I thought the only way to be enough was to prove myself by doing and taking on more things. In school, I over-achieved with my class load and supporting myself as a waitress. In my career, I perfected the appearance of a woman who could handle the weight of building an entire business —without anyone’s help — while raising two babies. I didn’t take breaks. I didn’t breathe. I didn’t rest. And I never asked for what I needed.
Fast forward to my late thirties and I had depleted myself so much that I put my body into adrenal fatigue, requiring years of self-care and recovery. My identity was so tied up in the doing, the achieving, the success of my company, that I wouldn’t slow down. Because I was always measuring myself against external forces, nothing was ever good enough. It cost me years of meaningful moments with my husband and kids.
Armor comes in many different flavors — perfectionism, over-committing, always having things handled, cynicism, sarcasm, and self-degradation to name a few. To find grounding in uncertainty, we build self-protection so quickly, but all it does is get in the way of us doing our best work and being good to ourselves and each other. We need to be very clear about the way we use armor, what triggers it, how it feels in our body, and what we sacrifice for it. Armor needs to be a daily topic of conversation on our teams.
Learning to engage with the world without our armor starts with the practice of curiosity:
- What is the self-protection I most commonly reach for?
- What am I looking to protect myself from? What can I try instead?
- How does my armor affect my work and relationship with my colleagues, my team, and our customers?
- How can I learn to stay in the discomfort of being real and true to who I am rather than solving to escape what’s really here for me to face?
 How to manage our emotions and reactions
I have coached hundreds of conversations at work where two humans are at the point where they absolutely cannot stand each other, let alone work together with any kind of productivity or compassion.
It’s always the stories that get in the way; fueled by perceived threats to our safety, love, and belonging. We’re so afraid of admitting and owning we’re hurt, lonely, sad, disappointed, ashamed, or even overwhelmed that we’d rather risk the casualty of our relationships with other humans than own our part. And even when someone else has definitely been a dick, we always have a part to own.
But most of us don’t have the tools to recognize we’re even doing this. Just like I was doing with Jon, we often reach for blame rather than facing what’s underneath our own discomfort. We fail to recognize the frustration, angst, and resentment we feel is caused by our own lack of boundaries and neglecting to ask for what we need.
Especially in complex and uncertain environments where we’re constantly triggered by emotions and spinning up stories that are unfounded, we have to be taught to use curiosity and practice what Jerry Colonna calls radical self-inquiry; a hard-earned tool where we develop the ability to look at our own stuff. Where we go inward to embrace the “glory and the mess” of our lives. It’s where we’re willing to be brave enough to let our hearts break wide open and risk being seen.
Radical self-inquiry is what I like to call a “me first, then them” approach to our relationships. When we’re struggling with anyone else, can we make space to take a look at ourselves first — reconciling and owning what’s really here for us — before we approach someone else?
Brené Brown teaches this practice with rumbles, where we manage our conflict, emotions, and reactions like grown ups. Where we learn to:
“[have a] discussion, conversation, or meeting defined by a commitment to lean into vulnerability, to stay curious and generous, to stick with the messy middle of problem identification and solving, to take a break and circle back when necessary, to be fearless in owning our parts, and, as psychologist Harriet Lerner teaches, to listen with the same passion with which we want to be heard.”
Just like vulnerability, self-inquiry and owning our parts are by far the toughest practices to learn. Our bodies are usually the first indication something is going on. A tightening in our chest or shoulders. A lump in our throats. A queasiness in our stomachs. The warm wash of shame.
We can begin building our self-inquiry muscle by simply noticing these signs and acknowledging something may be here for us to be curious about. We can also examine how we show up when met with uncertainty:
- Where do I use emotions or armor to get what I want instead of the vulnerability of asking for what I need?
- What about when I’m in the grasp of emotion? What do I notice in my body? What emotions typically come up? What stories do I craft?
- What are the signs I’ve disregarded my own values and boundaries, which make it harder for me to manage my reactions and emotions?
- And one of Jerry Colonna’s most powerful questions: how have I been contributing to the conditions I say I don’t want?
 How to build the courage to do hard things
The most important ways of being tool we can cultivate in managing uncertainty and complexity is the courage to belong to ourselves.
In Braving the Wilderness, Brené Brown shares the ultimate quest: “Our work is to get to the place where we like ourselves and are concerned when we judge ourselves too harshly or allow others to silence us. The wilderness demands this level of self-love and self-respect.”
When we’re given the gift to learn the tools to live in our integrity, strip away our self-protection, risk admitting our hurt or pain, understand our emotions, challenge our stories, and have empathy for those we struggle with the most, we are building the courage to be who we are. And that courage is required to do the hardest things at home and at work, including being honest with each other.
We cannot give to others what we do not have. Building this kind of courage is the journey of our lives, but we do it every time we face something that requires us to be brave.
We know we’re building courage when we’re being honest and direct — as well as generous and empathetic — with our colleagues; talking to them, not about them. We’re building courage when we’re clearly communicating expectations and requiring ourselves and colleagues to follow through. When we can manage our emotions and challenge our stories in a healthy way. When we can ask for help and meet our own needs, rather than waiting for permission from others.
We’re building courage when we keep our commitments and do what we say we’re going to do. When we’re setting and holding ourselves and others accountable to our boundaries. When we have the self-control to share only what is ours to share. We’re building courage when we’re keeping our promises to ourselves and living in our values every day. When we’re taking responsibility for our own growth.
“When we’re brave enough to admit our fears, uncertainties, and doubts, we open the gift box.” — Jerry Colonna
No one really likes to practice ways of being — it’s the hardest work we’ll ever do — but that’s what’s required of us as humans to navigate uncertainty, complexity, and be the best version of who we are.
The results of this work are undeniable.
Ways of being fosters cultures and humans who come from curiosity and generosity, solve problems more quickly, and move faster. Ways of being breaks down invisible barriers caused by geography, P&Ls, customer accounts, departments, divisions and on teams who have been fighting turf wars for years.
Ways of being gives a voice to those who don’t often use it, but have the intuition and perspective that drives monumental shifts in thought. Ways of being produces adaptive teams who experiment rather than complain; who innovate and produce award-winning work they’re proud of and that changes the world. It’s what powers the humans who evolve our companies over decades, keeping us in the game.
In parallel with ways of doing, ways of being is the gateway to sharing power with the humans in our companies so we can craft the systems and conditions that create the best possible version of our organizations.
Ways of Doing Starts With Being
For me, the hardest part of learning how to navigate uncertainty has been the vulnerability.
I had to learn to show up for myself and Jon in a different way; like setting boundaries and holding to them, even when Jon didn’t like it. When either of us hit a hard spot, I had to learn to trade the swooping, the rescuing, the fixing, and the leading us out of uncertainty, for pausing and engaging from a place of honesty.
I had to learn how to acknowledge when I was afraid or overwhelmed. I actually had to say those words out loud to Jon or the kids. I noticed that every time I attempted to hide my emotions, I always ended up in this place of “I can go it alone,” which is exactly where the frustration, irritability, and blame thrived.
I had to learn how to ask for what I needed without turning into a five-year-old. I got to a place where I noticed the blame was a red flag for denying my own needs. Sometimes I needed alone time and space on the weekends, even when I felt an overwhelming sense of mom guilt because I wasn’t spending time with my family. Sometimes I needed time with my girlfriends. Sometimes I needed rest. Sometimes I just needed a hug. All things that felt incredibly excruciating to ask for at the time.
I had to learn how to share the load. I had to come directly to Jon with my fears and feelings and let him hold it with me. Not from a place of solving, but simply sitting with me in the discomfort and darkness of the ambiguity; acknowledging the struggle together.
For many, many months, I practiced this over and over and over again. I tried and I failed. I ended up back in frustration, irritability, and blame more times than I can count. But then I’d try it again. And eventually, all of the hard work — on both of our parts — created more of the conditions we wanted.
These ways of being conditions — the willingness to be vulnerable, to acknowledge fears and feelings, get curious, ask for what we need, engage with honesty, set and adjust boundaries, intentionally practice getting it right, and learning to share the load — are what give humans and teams the opportunity to do their best work at work and in uncertainty.
With these conditions, we can shape our ways of doing: the systems, processes, and pathways we use to operate as a business, navigating the constant and inherent variability in our environment.
Tool Kit for Ways of Doing
“We simply don’t want the frightening, uneasy discomfort of feeling groundless. But we don’t have to close down when we feel groundlessness in any form. Instead, we can turn toward it.”
— Pema Chödrön
There is no step-by-step, linear system or process for navigating uncertainty or operating in complexity. It doesn’t — and can’t actually — exist. But this doesn’t mean we have no structure, say yes to everything, or pour fuel on the chaos. There are intentional practices we can integrate into our organizations that help us create the conditions we need to thrive.
With ways of doing practices, we can learn to turn into uncertainty. We can learn to constantly steer, and manage the present. We can learn to find our way by making small moves, continually experimenting, learning, and growing.
We can build enough infrastructure to give us footing; to keep us grounded in all of the tumult, without restricting the autonomy, agility, and responsiveness required to ebb and flow; sense and respond.
We can trade gripping and controlling for intentional and organic ways of achieving our purpose with ways of doing like operating rhythms — steering toward outcomes, and making space for action meetings, deep work sessions, and retrospectives. We can use guiding principles — where we trade rules for strategic thinking and share power by experimenting and dynamically shaping the systems that serve the organization.
We can work together as teams who are in service to the company, rather than our own agendas.
Every single team in our organizations need to practice operating rhythms. Without them, we hang out in this place where we succumb to the pressure of uncertainty. We play victim to the pace and unrelenting demands. We run ourselves into the ground with constant fire drills and learned helplessness.
In an attempt to bring certainty, security, and control to the speed of our environment, we tend to adopt this we-have-to-say-yes-to-absolutely-everything mentality. We forget our boundaries, our agency, and that we actually have a choice in how we do our work.
There’s a much better way.
Especially in uncertainty, as humans and teams, we need to be clear — and intentional — about where we will spend our energy and effort, and what we need to function at our best.
Operating rhythms teach us how to hold the weight of the work, the struggles, and the decisions, together as a team. They are the grounding element for operating in complexity and uncertainty.
Operating rhythms can come in many flavors, but work best with these bones:
 A weekly action meeting where the purpose is to identify and organize the work so we can be autonomous and have flexibility and freedom in doing our work. Action meetings also create the space to process tensions, fears, feelings, and ask for what we need. These can be done in 60 minutes or less.
 Ad hoc deep work sessions — when relevant and necessary — to work uninterrupted, design, or solve problems together. Typically these sessions are 90 minutes or more.
 Weekly, bi-weekly, or monthly retrospectives to learn from the work — and the way we work — so we can improve and grow. Retros can range from 60–90 minutes.
The two anchors of operating rhythms are outcomes and action meetings:
Outcomes, rather than outputs, support teams in staying focused on the value we’re providing for customers and for the organization. We craft outcomes by imagining what we’d like to experience — the stories we’d like to hear — when our work is done. We will revisit these outcomes weekly as a team, and they will align with the overarching vision and success of the company.
Steering towards outcomes is different than defining a future state and making a step-by-step plan that we grip tightly to and follow exactly as it’s written while we push toward it. Rather, it’s trading traditional planning for using flexible systems like operating rhythms, guiding principles, and prioritization as our strategy to navigate uncertainty.
It’s important to note that as leaders, we must be clear about the vision and make sure we are communicating it effectively to our teams. Even more significant is giving our teams the freedom to choose the ‘how.’ If our outcome is getting across the river, we don’t need to tell our teams to engineer a bridge or build a boat. We need to be clear, coach, get roadblocks out of the way, and trust each other as we work together to achieve our co-created outcomes.
Action meetings manage the present while we share the load and steer weekly towards desired outcomes. They provide the opportunity for teams to get clear about who’s doing what and where work is stuck. Rather than pre-planned agendas and lecture-style meetings that take us down rabbit holes, we use an emergent agenda that allows all voices to be heard. We can collect all the shiny and emergent things that are flying towards us at breakneck speeds. We can then slow down, breathe, and evaluate whether we need to deviate priorities and focus based on what is surfacing in the now.
Most importantly, action meetings give us the space to practice ways of being by processing the tensions, fears, feelings, and emotions that surface constantly in uncertainty and complexity.
Depending on the team, tensions may be things like bumping up against communication gaps in the process of creating our products or delivering our services. It may be resourcing and capacity issues like team members feeling stretched too thin, or not having the support we need when we need it. We may be hitting up against budget thresholds or need some advice before we make a decision.
Fears, feelings, and emotions typically come from the stories we’re telling ourselves connected to our safety, love, and belonging at work. It may be things like not feeling heard or understood. It may be admitting we don’t know how to approach a problem that has now become too big to manage on our own. It could be that we’re afraid we won’t hit our numbers or we’re struggling to hold our boundaries and are exhausted and overwhelmed. We may just be noticing there are some hard conversations we’re avoiding and need some support from the team.
With this discipline inside our action meeting, we eventually get to drop the back-channeling, meeting-after-the-meeting, the dirty yes, blaming, and gossiping that are so familiar in our work as teams. We trade the bullshit for being real with each other and asking for what we need.
At work, we spend a lot of time dancing around what really needs to be said and avoiding the conversations that would actually get our work done and bring more connection in our teams. Action meetings — as part of our operating rhythms — make space for vulnerability so our stories don’t become monsters that run us and derail our teams from what we’re here to do. It’s where we come back to center.
When clarifying or setting up operating rhythms with our teams, we can ask:
- Where can we advocate for intention, purpose, and space in the way we work every day?
- Aligned with the vision and purpose of the company, what outcomes would our team like to achieve?
- What might be getting in our way of those outcomes?
- What does our team need to operate at its best?
- What is our work as a team? How can we hold that work together (rather than working as islands or in silos)?
- How will we know when to say no or when to have a conversation about boundaries?
- What are the meetings or deep work sessions we need to move our work forward?
- What is the purpose of each of our meetings?
- What is the format of our meetings (action meeting, retro, design or problem solving session, governance, etc.)?
- How often and how long will we meet?
- What meetings are we currently missing and which ones do we need to stop having or repurpose?
- What do we need to communicate to each other so we can do our best work?
Operating rhythms help us find our flow in uncertainty. They help us work with intent and structure, yet hold things loosely as they’re constantly changing. They remind us to take charge of what’s in front of us, and leave space to process the weight of the ambiguity and flex with the massive ebbs and flows of our environment.
Coupled with guiding principles, we can learn to make small moves, prioritize valuable work, and experiment into better ways of doing and working.
As humans, we don’t like to hang out in the uncertainty of not knowing. We like to have answers, security, and safety.
That’s why we make rules.
Although it helps us feel like we’re in control, rules — the ones that no one is ever allowed to question — keep us small. They encourage learned helplessness and become armor. Rules are a way of micro-managing; they keep us from thinking for ourselves and leave us waiting for our “managers” to tell us what to do.
It’s not that we won’t have places in our work that require simple or linear processes and rules. Where we get into trouble is when those rules become the answer, our security, or the only way to do things right. Where we get into trouble is when rules close the door to conversation.
We can use guiding principles — borrowed from agile ways of working — to help us create the conditions to navigate uncertainty without so much rigidity.
While teams are encouraged to create and customize their own guiding principles in their ways of doing, these four are a great starting point to address common tensions in organizations: small moves over big moves; consent over consensus; less over more; and experimentation over planning.
[1 ] Small moves over big moves +  consent over consensus
With the amount of uncertainty we’re dealt on any given day, we are often paralyzed by the fear of not knowing and making the wrong move. We tell ourselves stories about how amazing innovation and big ideas need to come from big moves.
And then we do nothing.
We keep kicking the can down the road. Stalling. Pushing the work around but never really getting anywhere. Involving more and more people in decisions so we don’t get blamed if our good big idea turns bad.
Navigating uncertainty is all about small moves that keep us moving forward. Small moves over big moves gives us the opportunity to manage the present by cultivating our own certainty.
Where a big move might be clarifying our division or company’s service or product offerings, a small move may be setting up the deep work session where our team identifies the tension we’re addressing, the outcomes we’re going to work toward, and the operating rhythm we’ll use to achieve them, week by week.
Where a big move might be shifting the way we use our financial systems — what and how we measure, how we hold people accountable for quotas, how we report on numbers, how we react when numbers aren’t up and to the right — a small move would be getting clear on the behaviors we want. A small move would be looking at our current system and talking to those who use it to identify where we may be causing silos and a culture of fear and blame. A small move would be proposing an experiment to start reshaping the system.
With the practice of small moves — over and over and over again — we find ourselves closer to our desired outcomes each week. We then have enough data to see clearly in the present to make informed decisions about where to go next. Because we can’t predict the future, by constantly moving valuable work forward, we learn to navigate the vastness we can’t yet see.
Small moves over big moves also helps us better distribute decision making power. Paired with the guiding principle consent over consensus, small moves support us in making decisions safe-to-try — where we ask ourselves whether a decision would cause irreparable cultural or financial harm. We can make small decisions quickly with an advice process, and make bigger, more complex decisions safe-to-try by using a tool like integrative decision making. We can get into a culture of experimentation where we don’t have to say no because we’re afraid to be wrong. We can say, “make it safe-to-try and let’s see what we learn.”
By practicing small moves over big moves and consent over consensus, we dislodge stuck; the feeling that we’re running in place. These principles create the conditions for us to reduce the risk, exhale, give something a go, and regain momentum.
As teams, we can ask ourselves:
- Are we making small moves and steering intentionally and often toward desired outcomes?
- Are we iterating, experimenting, learning, and using that information to steer and make small moves?
- Are we breaking down big things and big reveals into small, safe-to-try pieces so we can learn?
 Less over more
I have never met a human or a team who didn’t struggle with less over more.
The emergencies. The shiny stuff. The constant barrage of more, more, more. It takes so much discipline and so many boundaries to stay focused on the work that brings value to the company while managing the unpredictability of every day.
When we do everything, we do nothing well. The key to mastering the less over more principle is integrating a proper operating rhythm, co-creating a prioritization process, and getting clear about why we find it so difficult to set boundaries and say no.
As mentioned, operating rhythms give us the practice of action meetings where we identify and organize the work required to steer towards outcomes each week. As we’re managing the present, we are not saying yes to every demand that comes at us. We are practicing prioritization as a conversation.
Prioritization can be a simple conversation we have with our team and the teams around us who need our support. Our job is to be intentional about how we spend our time and focus. Rather than digging in with our agenda, we can be in service to the team and company by asking ourselves these questions:
- Does this bring value to the business? Does this bring value to the customer? Why/how?
- Does this help us achieve our outcomes as a team? As a company?
- Do we have the time/money/resources to do this work?
- What are we willing to sacrifice in order to do this work?
- Are there any other teams we need to connect with before we consider/say no (or yes) to this work?
We can also identify overarching even/over strategy statements that help us discern where we need to sacrifice.
Living less over more means our prioritization process is also paired with the vulnerability required of each person on the team to name why we struggle to set boundaries.
Setting boundaries is imperative to maintaining sanity in uncertainty and complexity. If we want to stop saying yes to everything, we need to surface the real stories and reasons we struggle to prioritize as a team. Always saying yes, always doing, and always being busy can often be secret code for a few things:
Imposter syndrome: “I have no idea what I’m doing and if I just keep moving and do all the things, they won’t ever find out.”
Questioning my worthiness: “I’m not good enough, so if I just do more and please others, I won’t disappoint anyone and they’ll think I’m valuable. And then I’ll be OK.”
Avoidance: “I’m afraid to set a boundary or have any type of conflict, so I’d rather be overwhelmed than say no and be uncomfortable.”
Getting to the root causes of why we say yes too much is imperative to our ways of doing because it helps us focus on delivering value. If our teams are made up of humans who struggle with people pleasing, and we don’t learn to practice our way out of it, it’s always going to be tough to prioritize.
As a team, practicing less over more, can start with these questions:
- Are we prioritizing the work that is important to our team and company’s purpose?
- Are we setting boundaries and limits with how much work we can handle so we can do it well?
- What’s really getting in the way of us saying no or having a boundary with leaders and teams around us? What would happen if we do? What would that give us?
- How can we have that conversation — with our team and others who appear to be applying the pressure — about where we’re spending our time to create value for the company and gain perspective and understanding
- How do we redesign the environment we work in to be less like a pressure cooker and more conducive to collaborative teaming, creativity, and innovation?
- How can we adjust our operating rhythm so we are making space to practice less over more?
 Experimentation over planning
The biggest lie we tell ourselves at work is that there’s an answer. This lie fuels the story that we alone have to have it all figured out. We think if we had the answer, we would no longer have to sit in discomfort.
But that’s where all the magic is.
When we’re brave enough to admit we don’t know the answers, we surrender to the fact that we’re allowed to get it wrong, and that experimentation is one of the best ways to move through uncertainty, we find ourselves in a really good place.
Because of our complex work environment, there will never be one right answer, one thing, or even one person who’s the messiah out of our mess, or the one to blame for all of our problems. Once again, this is just our discomfort with uncertainty showing itself.
Where we get into trouble is when we don’t know the answer, we often reach for planning because it appears to bring the certainty we’re craving. We think it will prove we have “the answers” so we can give some sort of light in the darkness of our ambiguous environment.
But planning is a false friend. Instead, we have to learn to manage the present — and our emotions — moving toward outcomes in our operating rhythms, experimenting, and learning quickly as we continue to steer.
In Brave New Work, Aaron Dignan names a looping process where humans and teams learn to trade victimhood for agency. From tensions — or opportunities in our work — we can identify practices and the small moves required to address that tension. From there, we can shape experiments that help us learn what is needed to do our best work. We can create that culture of experimentation where everyone has the power to shift our systems to better serve the organization.
Practices may take days, weeks, or only 10 minutes at the start of a meeting like a check-in. Larger experiments — like shifting a budgeting system or changing the way we compensate or develop performance reviews — become projects that take many, many small moves over time.
Trading planning for experimentation shifts our mindset from being knowers to being learners. We can’t predict the future, so pretending we have a plan to get there just reinforces the need for armor required to navigate the uncertainty. We can drop the pretending and use experimentation to find the answers together.
With experimentation, our teams can consider questions like:
- Where do we bump up against our systems, processes, and rules that may be inhibiting trust, connection, conversation, creativity, and innovation
- Where are we building pathways around the systems we have in place?
- Where are we bumping up against the same tensions over and over? What could we practice for a short time to learn and shift the system?
- With the tensions we’ve named, what small moves and experiments can we try to shift what’s getting in our way?
- What is our ideal outcome with the experiment? What are the stories we’d like to hear?
- What is standing in the way of these outcomes? How could we reduce or remove these roadblocks during the experiment?
- What other teams do we need to do our work or that are impacted by our decisions?
With any ways of doing, it’s not about creating systems where we follow the exact process of an operating rhythm, action meeting or any other structure. It’s not about doing it right. It’s about creating the conditions for us to constantly optimize and do our best work together. It’s about using our agency rather than complaining, gossiping, or waiting to be told. It’s about disrupting what we’ve always done because we can do better. It’s about learning to be generous, curious, and have conversations about how our systems can serve us better. And it’s being thoughtful about what’s really here for us to face as humans and as teams.
Choosing to be Warriors
“A warrior accepts that we can never know what will happen to us next. We can try to control the uncontrollable by looking for security and predictability, always hoping to be comfortable and safe. But the truth is that we can never avoid uncertainty. This not-knowing is part of the adventure.”
— Pema Chödrön
We need to invest in both ways of being and ways of doing because these ways of working are required to navigate uncertainty, complexity, and become the best versions of ourselves as humans.
And that is what’s required to become the best version of ourselves as organizations.
What if the underwhelming ways in which we work together were no longer a convention we just accepted? What if we didn’t just cope or get by? What if work was a vehicle for becoming all of who we are as humans? What if doing just that built the companies — and the world — of our dreams?
What if we chose to risk trusting ourselves and each other? And what if when we’re in the not-knowing, the groundlessness — the discomfort — we learned to trust we’re going to be OK because we’re right where we belong?
Suffering is Optional
In the poem The Guest House, Rumi offers a lens for life that has supported me in my journey with uncertainty. He offers a view that everything on our journey is a guest — a teacher — who brings hidden gifts. These gifts are most generous when they come in the form of unexpected and often unwanted visitors like violent sorrow, dark thought, shame, malice, difficulty, and torment.
If we can see our lives as adventures where everything we’re faced with — especially the hard stuff — is an opportunity to grow, we can learn to “be grateful for whoever comes, because each has been sent as a guide from beyond.”
The uncertainty I’ve navigated in my life has been challenging, to say the least. At first, when I didn’t have the tools, it had me questioning everything. I felt overwhelming fear, loneliness, and hopelessness. I felt as though I had no control or choice. I doubted and sometimes hated myself. I was overly judgemental and hard on others. I thought uncertainty was the cause of all the pain and struggle I chose to walk through in the last many years of my adulthood.
But then I realized it’s also the gift that brought me back to myself.
And learning to navigate uncertainty is what supported me in co-creating the marriage and life I want.
Jon and I are still practicing our way out of the tilt. Some days, when I’m holding tight to my boundaries of not rescuing or fixing, and he’s struggling to find his own strength and confidence to overcome a challenge, we fight. The stories we hold on to get in our way: I’m afraid we’ll never get out of this habit and we’ll live in this angst forever. He’s afraid he’s being left behind and can’t do it on his own.
But then when I’m willing to be vulnerable and kind and honest about the partnership I want, and how playing into our old patterns doesn’t get us there, we come back to this place of level ground. Where each of us are standing on our own two feet. No tilt. Shoulder-to-shoulder. Holding the load together.
Now, when uncertainty rears its head, I know that fear, irritability, and blame will not be far behind. I know I may feel sadness and overwhelmed and need to cry in the chair in the corner of my bedroom. I know how to ask for the space I need from others, and get the comfort I need from myself.
And now that I know this, I can sit with my fears and sadness rather than using them as weapons. I can move through the emotions of feeling vulnerable and uncertain and make decisions from my center, not from my armor. I can be incredibly compassionate with myself.
And my husband.
On the Shoulders of Giants
These are some of the books and humans who have influenced my thought and craft as an org designer and in writing this manifesto:
Ways of Being
The Gifts of Imperfection — Dr. Brené Brown
Daring Greatly — Dr. Brené Brown
Rising Strong — Dr. Brené Brown
Braving the Wilderness — Dr. Brené Brown
Dare to Lead — Dr. Brené Brown
Reboot: Leadership and the Art of Growing up — Jerry Colonna
Living Beautifully with Uncertainty and Change — Pema Chödrön
Comfortable with Uncertainty — Pema Chödrön
When Things Fall Apart — Pema Chödrön
Ways of Doing
Reinventing Organizations — Frederic Laloux
The Uncertainty Mindset — Vaughn Tan
Brave New Work — Aaron Dignan
Organize for Complexity — Niels Pflaeging
The Little Book of Beyond Budgeting — Steve Morlidge
Thinking in Systems — Donella H. Meadows
Holacracy* — Brian J. Robertson
*I am not a fan of how Holacracy is often executed, but the book has ideas for shaping systems; experiment into what may work for your organization.