I was talking with a friend recently who took a voluntary lay-off to go to a new position at a start-up company. When the hiring executive at the new company went to his boss to make the hire, however, he was told he couldn’t bring my friend on full-time. By then his old position had already been reassigned, and if he were hired back, it would mean several other people would lose their jobs. In a matter of a day, he went from a planned, orderly transition into a new job to being without a job as the sole provider for the family.

At some point, everyone faces challenging situations where what we thought would develop or happen doesn’t. Some people fall apart. Others deal with the curves thrown their way seamlessly, functioning as if nothing out of the ordinary has happened.

Dealing with these moments productively, as my friend appears to be doing, depends on quickly figuring out your new reality and stepping through a process allowing you to focus and implement successfully. These fifteen steps will help you do that more effectively when the world around you appears to be crumbling:

  • Define (or redefine) what you’re trying to accomplish. Figure out if your original goal is still valid or needs to change to reflect the new situation you’re facing. Once you’ve decided, make sure your team knows what the goal looks like right now.
  • Identify critical priorities that can’t be compromised. Some things may be more important than others. Maybe it’s a timeline that absolutely can’t be moved; at the same time, some deliverables you expected to accomplish by the deadline may now have to be jettisoned from your plan. Make these determinations right away.
  • Figure out what fundamentals still hold. Although your situation has changed, it’s likely some things you’ve come to depend on are unchanged. Make a quick check of what you DO know and can depend on in your now unfamiliar situation.
  • Quickly secure access to critical information flows. If you need to move forward before everything is sorted out, devote some mental resources to soliciting multiples inputs about the situation – from those on your team, from listening to and observing other participants, from previous information sources (realizing they may now be compromised), and from anywhere else you can.
  • Stay mentally active and engaged. There can be a tendency to shut down in uncertain situations. Don’t let yourself become indecisive, especially if you’re trying to process new data sources. Instead, rapidly assess the information’s viability, add it to your knowledge base as appropriate, and keep moving.
  • Imagine the range of relevant possibilities that may unfold. Develop likely scenarios and their implications. Even with what may feel like extreme uncertainty, also look for common elements among the possibilities. Figure out actions you can take that make sense irrespective of which scenario plays out.
  • Develop mini-plans. With the potential scenarios, figure out what you can reasonably prepare for, just in case. Use mini-plans – checklists which contain two or three steps – to plot your potential courses of action. With a series of mini-plans, your timeline from start to finish is short (which is fitting in an unfamiliar situation), and as variables change, you can choose from among the most appropriate mini-plans.
  • Inventory available resources. Identify what’s at your disposal to advance your situation. The inventory should include the relevant talents and experiences of you and those on your team plus other physical and intangible resources you have. Identify redundancies, gaps, and superfluous resources in the inventory.
  • Take action on your resource inventory. Shed any dead weight among your resources which won’t be necessary and could slow you down. At the same time, secure the very basic resources which allow you to function in as many scenarios as possible.
  • Increase your ability to maneuver. Beyond shedding resources for flexibility, prioritize early decisions and actions which keep the greatest number of current options. Flexibility is valuable, so hang on to as much of it as you can for as long as you can without compromising achieving your objectives.
  • Secure resources to operate in the most likely scenarios. You may not be able to get all the support you need to fill your gaps. Because of this, prioritize resources which will work across multiple scenarios, even if they might not be exactly the best fit. It’s about the greatest flexibility and impact from the fewest resources possible.
  • Accept acting amid uncertainty. This is easier for some people than others, but you need to become comfortable right away with not being able to figure things out ahead of time. If you don’t have time on your side, you’ll have to advance with incomplete information and be open to adapting as you go.
  • Be open to spontaneity and depending on your instincts. You’re facing a different situation, so the standard tools and tricks you’ve used may be much less effective. As a result, open yourself up to solutions which you wouldn’t have previously considered. Instincts can become even more important in dictating what your next move should be.
  • Share information with those on your team. It takes information to co-participate successfully. If you’re moving ahead with mini-plans and a higher degree of spontaneity, it’s important to provide cues and information to your team so they can move with you.
  • Gauge your progress, adapt, and keep going. By using mini-plans, you’re never more than a couple of steps away from reaching an interim objective where you can gauge progress and adjust for the next mini-plan. Make sure as you do this you’re seeking input from your team and monitoring the environment around you to see what others are doing.

While these steps are presented separately, the activities may all have to take place in a few moments, some in a split second. That’s why it pays to practice by putting yourself in unfamiliar situations to develop your skills. Then if you have to divert from your original plan and wing it, you’re in a better position to go forth creatively and boldly. I’m not sure having to innovate on the spot in important situations gets any less nerve racking, but with these steps, you can better flex and still strategically deliver results no matter what gets thrown at you personally or professionally.

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