Risk and uncertainty

Are things outside your control? Think again

Some time ago I was involved in a practical example of shifting a team’s approach from a fatalistic “what’s going to happen is going to happen” to something more practical. Many people do believe we cannot influence many situations or plan for the unexpected, but I think that’s mistaken.

One way to manage difficult situations is to seek out the complexity—look at the variables. And that’s what we did in this particular case.

My team was due to go into a meeting with the CEO to update him on plans for their project. They had a somewhat distant relationship with the CEO, and there had been a similar meeting a few months before which hadn’t gone at all well. At that time he had taken against the plans, made it clear in no uncertain terms, and the team’s morale was hit badly. So overall they weren’t looking forward to this one and had taken a somewhat fatalistic approach.

To counter this kind of thing I ask first, “What variables influence the situation?” and second, “Which of those can we influence?”

When I asked the first question to the team they came up with six things which would influence the meeting:

  1. Who’s in the room
  2. The CEO’s expectations
  3. What we present
  4. The CEO’s mood
  5. How much time we’ve got
  6. What we want

It took a bit of thought, but it wasn’t too difficult.

When I asked which of those we could influence, they quickly answered numbers 1, 2, 3, and 6. We could determine who we would bring to the meeting and could speak to his PA about logistics; we could make sure he knew beforehand what the meeting was about; we had control of the material we’d present; we could make it clear what we wanted from him.

Additionally, the team thought they could half influence how much time we had. It wouldn’t be unusual for the CEO to arrive late and not extend the meeting, but by reducing the agenda we would could ensure that a shorter meeting would still be enough to cover all our issues.

Armed with that new perspective the team took on a much more optimistic outlook and had a number of actions. None of this guaranteed a positive outcome, but it did increase the probability of one. The team came away from the discussion feeling much more in control of things, which indeed they were.

Photo by Paul Hudson

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