Comfortable Being Uncomfortable

uncomfortableA couple of years ago I was talking to the CEO of a medium-sized company. “We started the year with 10 strategic initiatives,” he said. “It’s now May and we’ve scrapped 4 of them and added 3 new ones. We are committed to being agile and flexible in our approach to business, but at this point I’m not sure if we are being agile, or are just poor planners!”

This, in essence, describes probably the most serious barrier to becoming adaptive or agile—being uncomfortable with uncertainty. Are we being agile, or are we just poor planners? We may not know—until it’s too late. Furthermore, agility will never be comfortable, at least not in the sense leaders had in the past in which plans provided a comfortable certainty about the future. Not that the plans worked out, but they did, and do, provide a sense of stability to ward off anxiety.

In the mid-1990’s I managed a medium-sized project for a major sports equipment manufacturer. I vividly remember a meeting with my team leads. As we talked through our work plan for the next iteration I could see the accounting lead’s increasing frustration. “Ok, I said. “Here is a task list for what you need to do in the next iteration.” After the meeting, a young team lead—one who was comfortable with fuzzy plans—asked me, “Jim, I don’t think the task list you gave to Ted will actually work out like that.” “I know,” I responded, “but I needed to reduce Ted’s anxiety level so he could get started.”

One of the typical definitions of leadership, contrasted with management, is that it focuses on the future. Futures are uncertain, and therefore, leadership—even traditional leadership—can be fraught with uncomfortable feelings—concern, anxiety, fear, dread. The higher the uncertainty about the future and one’s decisions about that future—the stronger the feelings can be—and, the stronger the desire to mitigate those feelings.

Working with a cell phone software company in early 2001 in Vancouver the team was complaining about rapidly changing requirements—changes that were a reflection of the industry turmoil at that time. Many of the team members voiced the opinion, “Wow, things are really screwed up. We are always re-doing functionality we’ve already completed and requirements are always changing. We think the solution is to freeze requirements so we can finish this thing.”

Freezing requirements would have made things much easier for the team, and less stressful, but their final product would not have met their customer’s needs. It would have been a false comfort. My advice to the team was, “Deal with it. You have to be more comfortable being uncomfortable.” “Does that mean we have to accept all requirements changes,” they countered. “Aren’t there changes we should actually reject?” The answer is of course “yes” and this adds another layer of uncertainty to the comfort equation—accepting change brings one level of discomfort, and determining the validity of changes another. While traditional management processes tended to reject most changes, agile processes sometimes err on the side of considering all changes to be acceptable.

I sometimes think that this issue of dealing positively with being uncomfortable may be the most difficult part of becoming agile or adaptive. Traditional processes, as flawed as they can be, still offer a siren song of stability in the sea of uncertainty. Agile processes can offer a degree of stability, but they still require leaders to embrace more uncertainty, more instability, more discomfort—in short, more emotional upheaval. Adaptive leadership isn’t for everyone!