The New Year season is one of my favorite times of the year. Not just because of all the good cheer or presents and parties, but because it is a time of transition. Out with the old and in with the new. A time of reflection on what was, and a time of hope and beginning for what will be in the coming year. New budgets for exciting projects, hopeful resolutions for better health, and of course the annual optimism of potentially improving my golf game this year. Everything is lying there in front of me. The possibilities are exciting.
As intriguing as my plans and hopes for the New Year are, the more exciting potential rests in what might happen that I haven’t planned for — the surprises and serendipitous adventures that I never could have anticipated. For me, experiencing these unexpected twists and turns is more intriguing than achieving the planned objectives. But to realize them, I have to be comfortable going “off script” so the possibilities can emerge.
Trusting in emergence is a scary proposition. Que será, será? Really? What if nothing emerges? What if the wrong things emerge? You can’t take possibility to the bank. This feels way too uncertain. Most people would prefer things stay more predictable, a little closer to a guarantee — or at least within their control. Our natural predisposition for prediction makes this willy-nilly approach seem both unwise and irresponsible.
But I’m not talking about a life of total serendipity, just making a little room for the unplanned. To do that, I find it helpful to prepare myself, so I can recognize what emerges when it does. A little groundwork can go a long way in leveraging opportunities that otherwise might go unnoticed. Here are my thoughts on how to couple planful certainty with trust in emergence.
Be Here Now…
…or you will miss it. A myriad of new ideas and opportunities emerges every day. Business books are filled with stories of ideas and discoveries that were made “by accident” while looking for something else. Sometimes a plan can focus our eyes so much on the defined objective that we miss the things just outside our immediate focus.
Similarly, we can be so distracted — operating in a state of conscious unconsciousness — that we mindlessly pass right by a possibility. We need to set aside our images, judgments, and preconceived expectations and remain in the here and now, open to the possibilities.
When you are fully present, not worrying about the past or future, the little things have more room to emerge and we have greater capacity to see them. We may fear the lack of emergence, but not being here now decreases the chance we will recognize what does emerge, reinforcing our fears of trusting in emergence. It’s a bad cycle.
…or you will inherently refute it. If we are exclusively focused on what we expect, that is all we will see. We’ll miss the unexpected as it emerges. When we close our minds and lose our sense of curiosity, we miss what is emerging right under our nose.
Curiosity slows down the process and may delay the plan. It also may clarify or change the plan and move it in a better, albeit different, direction. When we let go of rigorously following the plan and take time to question it, we make room for creative alternatives that may actually save time.
If the curiosity is deliberate and thoughtful, it will feel less like a distraction and more like a cleansing breath. The questioning process alone can open up thinking and make space for new ideas to emerge. You can use a structured approach like the 5 Whys or just brainstorm alternatives. Try practicing without the bias of a goal. At least take a few minutes to regularly question it. Maintaining a curious mindset invites new ideas and prepares us to trust in what can emerge.
Lean into Vulnerability…
…or you will run from it. We are all taught to not show our underbelly and “never let them see you sweat.” But fear of vulnerability closes off our interest in exploring new things that might put us at risk. We may fear the shame or ridicule that comes with challenging the status quo, or worse, face the embarrassment of failure. As the pressure mounts to be and do right, our vision narrows and our curiosity dwindles, all so we can remain safe.
All teams and organizations are looking for more ways to be innovative, but unfortunately, many foster a culture that makes vulnerability too risky. Past mistakes can heighten our fears and restrict our interest in extending our vulnerability. So we increase predictability, typically through more exhaustive planning and risk avoidance. Another vicious cycle.
Learning and creating are inherently vulnerable, both because of the uncertainty and because they challenge what comfortably is. If we learn to lean into our vulnerability we can reduce the fear associated with the risk and open ourselves to trust that what emerges may be well worth the risk. This is a positive cycle.
Let the New Year Emerge
When I work with teams adopting agile, I tell them agile is not a silver bullet and it is not for every project, but it is a methodology best suited for high uncertainty. Agile methods not only manage the uncertainty but also leverage it by allowing requirements and solutions to emerge. In order to realize the benefits of the unplanned, we have to trust in emergence.
A few years back I wrote an article on using improv to Improv Your Team. Improv by definition relies on trusting in emergence. With little preparation or prediction, and relying on what surfaces at the moment, improv requires that you be present, stay curious, and lean into vulnerability. One of the most enjoyable things I did as a dad was to take an improv class with my oldest daughter, Jenna. Not only did we learn to trust emergence in the class itself, but the time together created numerous opportunities for great things to emerge in our father/daughter relationship. I highly recommend it to all parents.
This year my New Year’s resolution is to be more in tune with what is emerging and look for opportunities to leverage the unplanned. This doesn’t mean I won’t have plans (I’ll still work on my golf game), just that I’ll work on making a little more room for what could be. In the New Year, I hope you too can take some time to be here now, stay curious, and lean into your vulnerability. Perhaps what seems like random serendipity will produce a convergence of awareness, intent, and actions that is worthy of the excitement of the New Year.