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The Midweek Rambler

How to Unplan for an Uncertain Future


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Each week I take a walk and reflect on whatever comes to mind in this personal blog. Today I brave the winds and rain of an incoming storm to find a simple course correction after a period of turmoil. And discern 6 Principles of Unplanning for an Uncertain Future.

I had a plan for Jan that hasn’t materialised. A project I’d wanted to kickstart in the New Year isn’t ready and I’ve been in a familiar battle between should I push harder or let things be?  As I head out into the rain I am buffeted on the outside by the strengthening winds and inside by the swirl of thoughts in my head about what I might have done differently and what has or hasn’t happened. Am I simply unprepared, or is it just not the right time? I can really create suffering for myself when I don’t live up to my own expectations. And there’s something about starting behind that feels exhausting. But I am learning to trust whatever is unfolding, even when it isn’t what I had planned. So what is going on? And how can a generative eye bring a different perspective to this scene?

To everything there is a season, and a time for every purpose under heaven
Ecclesiastes 3.1

I need a proper break in midwinter. I am tired, body and soul, when it comes to the end of the natural growth cycle and I give myself a few weeks off. Even allowing for this much-needed rest, I just didn’t have it in me to complete on a bunch of tasks – that were critical to a new project – before I shut down for the year. I thought I’d finish over the break, once I’d got through Christmas, but I didn’t. I was too deep in the darkness of my long winter rest and nothing would rouse me. I’ll do it as soon as I’m back in January. I didn’t. Like a bear emerging from her sleepy cave, I was slow and dazed, blinded by the busyness of the world, and didn’t feel ready. The world around me too still felt closed down for winter, buds at the tips of the trees’ branches but nothing ready to burst forth. It’s really only this week, as the green shoots of snowdrops and crocuses are beginning to emerge in the woods, that I’ve felt back to my full working stride and able to move projects ahead. But now of course all my timings are off, everything’s late and I feel under pressure.

So if I’m working generatively and orienting myself to the flow of life force, to allow my work to glide effortlessly into the world and create a positive impact… what do I do when I experience the flow stopping?

How can I make plans if I’m always having to wait to see if the energy is with me or not? How is that sustainable? This is a question we have pondered long and hard at GenerativeWork.Space and the only way we’ve found to meet it is to start with what is.

This is what true ‘mindfulness’ helps us with. We can call our attention back to present moment awareness. People waste huge amounts of energy by focusing on the past – regrets, resentments, nostalgia – or on the future – aspirations, expectations, dreams – so that their focus is not on the truth of the moment at hand. Of course, sometimes it’s valuable to look back at causes you have made previously. And to set your intention for the future you’d like to create. But we can only ever really work in this moment.

So in my current experience, my attention going back to the various moments I might have completed this work and didn’t, just brought me regret and self-recrimination. So now, as well as not doing the work and the project not moving ahead, I feel bad about myself! Like many people, one of my negative tendencies is perfectionism. (And yes, in case you’re questioning, I do consider perfectionism to be a negative tendency.) So it’s hard for me to mess up. It’s uncomfortable. But the framing of it as messing up only happens with the pressure of timing and expectation. I had planned for this new project to kick off in January. And I told people that it would.

If I can drag my attention out of past actions or future expectations, it’s quite simple. I need to delay the project start by a month. Sure it’s not ideal to have to go back to the people involved and tell them this. That’s also uncomfortable, but it does produce the space I need to actually come at this block of work with a full focus. My attention isn’t drained by the expectations I held back In the Autumn when I set this timetable in motion. My vision of the future isn’t fixed, it can adapt. It can flex with the circumstances I meet in the present moment. I can unplan.

This is hard in terms of business planning, when the plans we make have direct consequences for other people, financial flows, promises we make to customers etc. A change in our plans can have real impact. But that doesn’t mean the change isn’t right. It’s often hard for people and organisations to admit they’ve made a mistake. In my current experience, I can see that scheduling a difficult piece of work just before clocking out for the year, when my energy is always low, was expecting too much of myself. It’s better to admit that, delay the project – and get help doing the thing I was struggling with. (Asking for help is also something we may fail to do, especially if we have the perfectionist gene!)

In organisations, leaders often bind themselves to decisions and strategies they’ve made, even when it’s becoming clear that it’s not working. Many clients have reported instances of teams disrupted to breaking point after a bad hire to a leadership role, for example. Organisations often seem paralysed to respond, resigned to sit by and watch as the team disintegrates, work abandoned, momentum lost, because they cannot admit they hired the wrong person. Yet timings, deadlines, decisions need continual re-evaluation and get pushed back (or forward) by circumstance, hence the rise of approaches (systemic, agile, scrum) where capacities of awareness of the whole are made more explicit.

Perhaps one way of keeping more options for movement in our plans is not to stitch them up so tight in the first place. If we can leave a bit of space in there, there’s room for surprises to show up. When I began working in organisations many years ago, we all did 5- or 10-year plans. But seriously, have you any idea what is going to happen in 5 years? Did anybody’s plan for 2020 include a global pandemic? But if there’s one thing many of us have learnt in this last year, it’s how to pivot, flex and work with the present moment challenges we face. If we push back on expectations and deadlines, financial and temporal pressures, our initiatives have much more chance of success and being able to respond to a socio-economic environment in constant flux.

The trouble with strict plans is they assume we are in control of all factors, or we are mitigating against risk by anticipating every challenge and trying to meet it in advance. We can’t do that. I’m not sure we ever really could but we certainly can’t now in the rapid pace of change we find ourselves in. We’re part of a complex web of interconnected ecosystems that are increasingly unpredictable. By our own hands, we have disrupted the environmental systems we operate within to such a degree that we can no longer track and anticipate them. Global warming is happening so fast that we can’t devise models quick enough to gauge what we might be seeing.

And yet if we can bring our attention in our work to what is happening now – Where are the actual current pressures in our organisation? How are our people feeling? What is really needed now? – perhaps we can achieve more than we planned. Before 2020 anyone would have said it was impossible to create a vaccine for a new disease threat within a year. But because that threat in the present moment was so great that everyone’s attention had to be on what is happening right now, something different became possible.

A lot of the pressures in work initiatives come from plans being sewn up so tight. And much of that is self-imposed, rather than dictated by the purpose (as in the case of the vaccine). I spend a lot of time with people I’m coaching gradually unpicking self-imposed deadlines and expectations that are blocking them from achieving their goal. The pressure of a tight plan builds up so that the pressure and the plan become the focus, rather than the purpose of the initiative and the reality of the present moment. Bringing our attention continually to the purpose – Are we still heading in the right direction? Are we still focusing on what really matters? – and then back to the present moment – How are we doing? What can we see now? What is working and what isn’t working? – allows us to course correct as many times as we need to bring about a desired result. When schedules are scripted to the minute and budgets accounted to the penny, there is no room for creativity, no space to respond to new and vital information as it arises. And that often includes new information about the people delivering on the plan, not just the plan itself. We are not robots following a blueprint; our human experience also shapes the endeavours we are engaged in.

What if we could hang looser and give ourselves time and space to truly explore something; to allow our creative instincts to take us to the optimal solution, rather than follow a pre-envisioned idea of what would work best? Having a fixed plan is a bit like painting by numbers. Sure you’ll come up with a picture that looks like the one on the box, but is it going to be a masterpiece? Having more creative range allows the messes and mistakes and bursts of inspiration that bring true beauty to our efforts.

Nowadays I am always looking for ways to work generatively. The 5-year plans are gone, but I do set intentions for the year – and I make them bold because this activity really speaks to my potential to create something valuable in the world. And I have a fair idea of how resources will flow – people, time, money, energy – through these plans. Then I focus on the next 90 days and try to let go of worrying about things beyond that. (Admittedly this is a very small organisation and it’s harder with larger ones, but I do feel many of these principles still hold.) When I focus on the next 90 days, I usually realise I’ve put too much on my plate. And if I do less, but do it well, everything grows and I don’t get burnt out. Even so, sometimes things don’t work out. I didn’t manage to complete a tech system in the time I’d planned and the project is delayed a month. It’s still uncomfortable for me and I have to revisit the generative principles I’m choosing to work with, but I have learnt that staying with the energy of what is, is more important than pushing myself to stick rigidly to the plan. It’s better for me and ultimately better for the work I’m creating. It helps me to take my cue from the wider world around me, and so it feels right that the project will be ready to come into the world just as the snowdrops show their snowy white heads.

Principles of Unplanning for an Uncertain Future

  • We are a living part of the interconnected socio-economic and ecological environments we operate within. We are both affected by these systemic forces and impacting on them through our work but we cannot control these larger forces, no matter how much we try to mitigate risk in our plans
  • Push back on the boundaries of your plan to allow more room for creativity and course correction. When we really dig into it, often the expectations and temporal and financial parameters we’re following are self-imposed and could have been set more spaciously
  • Allow the human element to disrupt your plan. Let the process of delivering the plan be part of the planning. Paying attention to how we’re doing and allowing for some mess and mistakes allows the unexpected to bring something new. Creativity and perfectionism are uneasy bedfellows. Admit when things go wrong and allow a better solution to emerge
  • Keep bringing your attention back to the present moment, and check in regularly with the purpose of what you’re trying to achieve. This helps the true value of the enterprise to guide you, rather than rigidly following a blueprint to achieve it
  • Acknowledge when your personal patterns are at play and clouding what is truly best for the purpose you are serving. Any piece of work we’re engaged in is always an opportunity for personal reflection and growth as well as creating a benefit for the people we aim to serve
  • When we’re not in flow but we push through regardless, we often sacrifice self-care and push ourselves into unhealthy overwhelm. If we do this repeatedly we burn out. Sometimes natural growth cycles can help us to align with a more sustainable approach to work

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Listen: For Now I  Am in Winter (Olafur Arnalds)