It’s unquestionable, these are uncertainty times. In such times, two deceivingly simple things hold true. The first is that we have to relearn what we can rely on. The second is that the ability to think differently and creatively quickly rises from a want to a vital need.
These simple truths are more nuanced than they first appear, and the implications of seeing (or missing) the gradation is critical for leaders, but really for anyone.
If you’re only looking at the most immediate and obvious forms of uncertainty right now (e.g. Covid), you’re missing the more important trend line. For the past 20 years, the environment in which we work and live has become increasingly uncertain. The proof is captured in countless annual leadership studies, from sources as diverse as PwC’s CEO Survey to the World Economic Forum’s (WEF) risk report.
Representative of the findings, PwC revealed that a full four out of five leaders (82 percent) describe the world in which they must now lead by a single word: unpredictable. What’s more, the 2018 WEC risk report made it clear that the very nature of change is changing, becoming ever more complex. The upshot: While once reliably episodic, uncertainty is now constant. Beyond predicting the path forward, walking it has become increasingly challenging.
What’s fascinating is how consistently these same leaders who conclude the path forward is unpredictable, say that the way forward isn’t about strategy or best practices or any of the things that tend to get the most attention. Rather, it’s about creativity.
For many organizations, uncertain times are perceived as a signal to batten down the hatches and stick even more closely to what we know. And yet, even those who default to this falsely-assumed-to-be-safer approach seem to know a more creative, adaptable, fluid advance is what’s truly needed (77 percent, according to PwC’s CEO survey). What most lack is an understanding of how to do it. That’s where the “Three Acts of Creation” comes in.
As simple as they may at first sound, as an advisor I’ve seen three simple acts to be the greatest source of adaptability, creativity, and resilience for leaders—that is when they are consciously recognized and applied as a habit. These “3 Acts of Creation,” as I call them, are: choice, reaction, and improvisation. (The 3 Acts are described in detail in my book, The Language of Man. Learning to Speak Creativity.)
Choice is powerful, so much so that even indecision is still a choice. Stating the obvious, indecision isn’t what we’re after. It’s the active thought and engagement in each and every choice that separates the quick from the dead in uncertain times. Too often, even without being conscious of it, we allow uncertainty to put us on autopilot, to simply do rather than to wonder, consider, and think anew about our choices.
The hidden danger of choice is that when we make one, we tend to assume the best will follow. That’s why reaction is the second powerful and critical act of creation. In truth, reaction is the beginning of a new choice. The difference is that reaction most often begins with two silent handicaps. When the result of a choice is positive, we tend to let overconfidence cause us to drop our guard as we react. When it’s negative, we often move backwards, not forwards, and seek to defend. There is no backwards in uncertain times.
The final act of creation is the willingness to embrace uncertainty itself, to know that no choice is guaranteed, and to develop the habit of repeatedly acting in the face of the unknown. To do otherwise is to wait to be rolled over by those willing to improvise. They’re out there. It’s your choice to be one of them.
In the end, there is no perfect formula for charting a course through uncertainty. Take a current and familiar case in point. In an interview with New York Governor Andrew Cuomo on June 17, 2020, journalist Amy Robach asked if, amid all the uncertainty of the current pandemic, schools in New York would open in the fall. Cuomo’s a politician, but he’s also a business leader with a business to run, one that inevitably relies on actions, not just words from the podium: the state of New York. And public schools are a major division of his business.
Cuomo’s answer was simply and truthful. “I don’t know. I don’t think anybody knows. And anybody who tells you they know what’s going to happen, I wouldn’t believe them.” The day after he made that comment, and everyone since in this unending pandemic, he improvised with what he did know and took action. His words are a kind of blunt honesty that’s gradually replacing the idea that leaders need to know everything and with certainty. And alongside that honesty is a return to being conscious of the simple yet powerful acts defining how new and better gets created.
A version of this article originally appeared in the author’s The Innovator’s Edge column for Inc. Magazine.