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Regaining our Sense of Direction

“Two strokes to the right, then punch into it.” These were the words of our guide as we navigated another rapid down the mighty Zambezi River. We were at the merciless disposal of the pounding white water. Equal measure of fear and exhilaration. Trying to maintain a direction while adapting as best we could to dynamic forces of the water. 

In some ways, the last few weeks have felt like that experience. The world of COVID19 changing our context in dynamic and unexpected ways. Customers or suppliers may have changed the behaviours we relied on for planning in our business. Shifts in health and economic trends have raised more questions than answers. Decisions about work life and family life have become intertwined. Some ‘SMART’ goals we put in place feel irrelevant as our circumstances have shifted. 

We’re encountering what Ann Pendelton-Julian calls the White Water World. “… a world that is rapidly changing, increasingly interconnected, and where, because of this increasing interconnectivity, everything is more contingent on everything else happening around it – much more so than ever before.”

She unpacks the white water metaphor further here – I want to focus on one element.

Regaining our sense of direction.

Direction is the intent of what we’re trying to achieve. The trajectory towards a range of outcomes we’re hoping for. The overarching reason, or purpose, that guides our decisions in the present.

It’s important to distinguish a direction from a destination. The rapid rate of change in our environment means that specific goals or fixed targets are unhelpful. They can narrow our focus. The next shift in context comes crashing in from the side, making the goal irrelevant. Fixed goals become restrictive at the cost of being able to adapt to other more promising strategies. They can lead to paralysis and anxiety in decision making. People might say, “We’ve been told to aim for this but it doesn’t make sense any more. What should we do?” 

We’re looking for ways to move forward in this time of disruption with a bigger picture in mind.

We’ve got to zoom out and look for, what James P Carse calls, the  ‘infinite games‘ we are playing in. Things like maintaining relevance as a business, enjoying family life and satisfying careers. The focus is on continuing and enhancing the journey.  Not focusing on a specific destination. There is no point where we say “I have won”. We look to influence the ‘game’ in the direction we want to go in.

Direction still provides focus but allows for a range of outcomes. In my rafting experience, the intent was to have fun and survive the rapids. Different rafts would achieve this without having to take a specific route through the rapid.  The guides were reading movements in the water and making a judgement before navigating each rapid. There was no prescribed, best way to do it.

So, how do we regain this sense of direction? 

Start with a statement of intent specific enough to give direction but allowing for various desirable outcomes. Involve others (your team perhaps) in the conversation to get diverse input to form a useful statement.

Prompting questions could be:

  • What would it look like to be thriving in this situation?
  • Where can we make a valuable contribution in our organisation/industry?
  • What can we add that would be missing if we didn’t exist?
  • What is the infinite game we are playing here?
  • What is it about the work we do that really matters?

The statement is not the point. The statement is like scaffolding. It supports the building of something that remains after it’s gone. It’s temporary, designed to help us through this current disruption. 

So, once we have a statement, we stress test it with a few decisions we currently face. Customer segments to focus on. Resourcing needs. Projects to proceed with or halt. Logistical challenges.

  • How does the statement help us in making the decision? 
  • Does the statement give us a sense of direction or is it too vague? How could we make it more specific?
  • Or, does it feel too specific and restrictive given some of the other options we think could work? 
  • If our context suddenly shifted from the current plan, would we still be clear on how to move forward? 

We refine to the point it is useful in giving a collective sense of direction. Not perfection.

Like the guide on my raft, we use it to make good judgements on how to navigate the white water we’re in.

So, if this current time makes you feel disorientated or paralyzed, take a moment to regain your sense of direction.

Doug Maarschalk is a facilitator and coach who guides people to sustained high performance through healthy continuous improvement. He’s worked with clients in the horticulture, banking, logistics and manufacture sectors along with local government. Read more about the Services Doug provides and the Clients he has worked with.

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