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Embracing Uncertainty

Distribution Management
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And how doing so can open up a realm of possibilities.

by Howard Coleman

Over the past few years, and especially starting during the COVID-19 era, we all heard so much about every “new normal” – terms like “transformation,” “re-invention, “rapid change,” “disruption,” and “turbulence” emerged. And of course, we heard about the lack of new technology adoption by many companies.

My own travels as a consultant allow me to bear witness to what the response to all that has been. Bottom line: It’s been yes and no. Most of the inaction has been with middle-market companies that still seem to be “frozen in time.”

So, as I began to write this article, freezing temperatures, prominent and multiple court cases, ongoing wars in Gaza and Ukraine, the lingering questions around COVID-19 and other respiratory illnesses hitting the population again – all seem to foreshadow elements of uncertainty. Those were just some of the stories I was considering while sitting here in front of my computer. Some of these are surely outside what we have to deal with as consultants, although I may have my own personal feelings. Some just might be the general “fear of the unknown”.

Each one of these has its own set of questions that don’t necessarily have clear answers. And of course, the rest of the year surely will present more questions, but of different types – more uncertainty in store for us. Some may fade, but, to be sure, other uncertainties will replace them.

That’s probably not comforting for us to read, whether it be uncertainties regarding the potential impacts on our businesses or, for that matter, on our own personal lives. But, I think there is a strong case for why uncertainty should not be something we run from or be averse to. Instead, maybe it’s something we should embrace and then use as a tool to better understand what’s happening around us – and to make positive changes to our own particular situations . . . maybe even increasing creativity and innovation because tolerance of uncertainty allows us to learn and adapt.

Life is filled with worries about the future. While many things remain outside your control, your mindset is key to coping with difficult circumstances and confidently facing the unknown.

In a recent guest essay for the New York Times opinion page (January 13, 2024), the author, Maggie Jackson, makes a strong argument for why uncertainty in all aspects of our life should not be something we flee from, but rather to make positive change in all of life pursuits – including business competitiveness.

It’s challenging, not a threat! Why? Because our instincts tell us to either find answers or just cope with it, that is, finding a way to put it out of our minds. It’s about coming to grips with not knowing something or just accepting what feels especially out of place for us; regardless of whether those inner voices we sometimes hear beckon us to resolve that uneasy feeling as quickly and as thoroughly as possible. Uncertainty offers the possibility for our personal and business lives to go in a different direction. If we accept the possibilities, we become more sensitive to those different directions – maybe a whole realm of possibilities open up. Now, that’s exciting!

Surely, I find the idea of embracing uncertainty to be especially interesting as a consultant. (See, I’m not immune!) Why? Well, my entire career has been built on the habits I’ve sown, nurtured, grown, and incorporated into my own portfolio; to ask direct questions, to utilize the tools I’ve developed and/or learned to get to the bottom of something – and then share what I’ve found with my clients.

Distribution Management
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Jackson contends that a wave of new discoveries, seemingly since the days of the COVID-19 epidemic, reveals that learning to lean into uncertainty in times of rapid change is an antidote to angst. A growing body of evidence suggests that skillfully managing uncertainty in the face of what’s murky, new, or unexpected is an effective treatment for that angst, and a likely path to building resilience. Also, it’s a mark of astute problem-solving ability!

Uncertainty isn’t about simply sitting in the dark. Rather the possibility of more “certainty, as a beacon,” as Jackson says, can be a path forward that helps us find the information and answers, we seek. It can help shake off the biases and assumptions we all have and then find new starting points to seek knowledge. It’s a valuable tool not only for consultants but for us all. It’s a good way to thrive!

Uncertainty – being unsure – demands an admission on our part; the world is unpredictable, dynamic, and flawed. And so are we. So, our lives have a lot of unpredictability, and of course, that spills over to our business pursuits.

Jackson concludes, “Learning to contend with uncertainty won’t completely fix the problems of our day. But, as we move through a new year, rife with high-stakes unknowns (whatever the ‘new normal’ of the day is), we should rethink our outdated notions of not knowing as weakness and instead discover our own mindsets as a strength. The implications . . . are vast.”

We’re all different in how much uncertainty we can tolerate in life. Some people seem to enjoy taking risks and living unpredictable roles, while others find the randomness disturbing.

There are steps you can take to better deal with uncontrollable circumstances, alleviate that angst, and face the unknown with more confidence.

The following tips can help:

  • Focus on controlling those matters that are under your control.
  • Learn to better tolerate, be resilient, and even embrace the inevitable uncertainty.
  • Challenge your own need for certainty.
  • And my own personal favorite: Think like an entrepreneur.

Howard Coleman

Howard W. Coleman is principal of MCA Associates, a management consulting firm that works with wholesale distribution and manufacturing companies seeking and committed to operational excellence. Contact him at hcoleman@mcaassociates.com, 203-906-7268, or visit www.mcaassociates.com.




This article originally appeared in the May/June 2024 issue of 
Industrial Supply magazine. Copyright 2024, Direct Business Media.
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