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How to Be Successful When You Can’t Plan Ahead

How to Be Successful When You Can’t Plan Ahead

    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.

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    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.

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    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:

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    • 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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    Last Updated on August 20, 2019

    Becoming Self-Taught (The How-To Guide)

    Becoming Self-Taught (The How-To Guide)

    Most of the skills I use to make a living are skills I’ve learned on my own: Web design, desktop publishing, marketing, personal productivity skills, even teaching! And most of what I know about science, politics, computers, art, guitar-playing, world history, writing, and a dozen other topics, I’ve picked up outside of any formal education.

    This is not to toot my own horn at all; if you stop to think about it, much of what you know how to do you’ve picked up on your own. But we rarely think about the process of becoming self-taught. This is too bad, because often, we shy away from things we don’t know how to do without stopping to think about how we might learn it — in many cases, fairly easily.

    The way you approach the world around you dictates to a great degree whether you will find learning something new easy or hard. Learning comes easily to people who have developed:

    Curiosity

    Being curious means you look forward to learning new things and are troubled by gaps in your understanding of the world. New words and ideas are received as challenges and the work of understanding them is embraced.

    People who lack curiosity see learning new things as a chore — or worse, as beyond their capacities.

    Patience

    Depending on the complexity of a topic, learning something new can take a long time. And it’s bound to be frustrating as you grapple with new terminologies, new models, and apparently irrelevant information.

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    When you are learning something by yourself, there is nobody to control the flow of information, to make sure you move from basic knowledge to intermediate and finally advanced concepts.

    Patience with your topic, and more importantly with yourself is crucial — there’s no field of knowledge that someone in the world hasn’t managed to learn, starting from exactly where you are.

    A Feeling for Connectedness

    This is the hardest talent to cultivate, and is where most people flounder when approaching a new topic.

    A new body of knowledge is always easiest to learn if you can figure out the way it connects to what you already know. For years, I struggled with calculus in college until one day, my chemistry professor demonstrated how to do half-life calculations using integrals. From then on, calculus came much easier, because I had made a connection between a concept I understood well (the chemistry of half-lifes) and a field I had always struggled in (higher maths).

    The more you look for and pay attention to the connections between different fields, the more readily your mind will be able to latch onto new concepts.

    With a learning attitude in place, working your way into a new topic is simply a matter of research, practice, networking, and scheduling:

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    1. Research

    Of course, the most important step in learning something new is actually finding out stuff about it. I tend to go through three distinct phases when I’m teaching myself a new topic:

    Learning the Basics

    Start as all things start today: Google it! Somehow people managed to learn before Google ( I learned HTML when Altavista was the best we got!) but nowadays a well-formed search on Google will get you a wealth of information on any topic in seconds.

    Surfing Wikipedia articles is a great way to get a basic grounding in a new field, too — and usually the Wikipedia entry for your search term will be on the first page of your Google search.

    What I look for is basic information and then the work of experts — blogs by researchers in a field, forums about a topic, organizational websites, magazines. I subscribe to a bunch of RSS feeds to keep up with new material as it’s posted, I print out articles to read in-depth later, and I look for the names of top authors or top books in the field.

    Hitting the Books

    Once I have a good outline of a field of knowledge, I hit the library. I look up the key names and titles I came across online, and then scan the shelves around those titles for other books that look interesting.

    Then, I go to the children’s section of the library and look up the same call numbers — a good overview for teens is probably going to be clearer, more concise, and more geared towards learning than many adult books.

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    Long-Term Reference

    While I’m reading my stack of books from the library, I start keeping my eyes out for books I will want to give a permanent place on my shelves. I check online and brick-and-mortar bookstores, but also search thrift stores, used bookstores, library book sales, garage sales, wherever I happen to find myself in the presence of books.

    My goal is a collection of reference manuals and top books that I will come back to either to answer thorny questions or to refresh my knowledge as I put new skills into practice. And to do this cheaply and quickly.

    2. Practice

    Putting new knowledges into practice helps us develop better understandings now and remember more later. Although a lot of books offer exercises and self-tests, I prefer to jump right in and build something: a website, an essay, a desk, whatever.

    A great way to put any new body of knowledge into action is to start a blog on it — put it out there for the world to see and comment on.

    Just don’t lock your learning up in your head where nobody ever sees how much you know about something, and you never see how much you still don’t know.

    3. Network

    One of the most powerful sources of knowledge and understanding in my life have been the social networks I have become embedded in over the years — the websites I write on, the LISTSERV I belong to, the people I talk with and present alongside at conferences, my colleagues in the department where I studied and the department where I now teach, and so on.

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    These networks are crucial to extending my knowledge in areas I am already involved, and for referring me to contacts in areas where I have no prior experience. Joining an email list, emailing someone working in the field, asking colleagues for recommendations, all are useful ways of getting a foothold in a new field.

    Networking also allows you to test your newly-acquired knowledge against others’ understandings, giving you a chance to grow and further develop.

    4. Schedule

    For anything more complex than a simple overview, it pays to schedule time to commit to learning. Having the books on the shelf, the top websites bookmarked, and a string of contacts does no good if you don’t give yourself time to focus on reading, digesting, and implementing your knowledge.

    Give yourself a deadline, even if there is no externally imposed time limit, and work out a schedule to reach that deadline.

    Final Thoughts

    In a sense, even formal education is a form of self-guided learning — in the end, a teacher can only suggest and encourage a path to learning, at best cutting out some of the work of finding reliable sources to learn from.

    If you’re already working, or have a range of interests beside the purely academic, formal instruction may be too inconvenient or too expensive to undertake. That doesn’t mean you have to set aside the possibility of learning, though; history is full of self-taught successes.

    At its best, even a formal education is meant to prepare you for a life of self-guided learning; with the power of the Internet and the mass media at our disposal, there’s really no reason not to follow your muse wherever it may lead.

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    Featured photo credit: Priscilla Du Preez via unsplash.com

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