Working in the grey and dealing with uncertainty is something that many leaders face on a daily basis. Market conditions and industries are changing rapidly, while organisations are using new technologies to work differently and deliver services.
Leaders also “work in the grey” when they lead new projects, navigating their teams through a landscape which is uncertain.
Author’s Note: Where I come from, we write “Grey” instead of “Gray”. I’m sure you’ll adapt to this challenge as you keep reading!
The Adaptability Quotient (AQ)
Change and uncertainty is so common these days that the “Adaptability Quotient” (AQ) was developed to assess a person’s ability to adapt to changing circumstances.
AQ is now considered to be one of the in-demand factors for people and particularly leaders in our fast-changing environment. As leaders, we can’t afford to wait until we have all the answers – we need to start taking steps to move forward as soon as possible.
Take a look at the article below to learn more about AQ and what it means for you.
Learn More: The Adaptability Quotient.
The Great Benefits of Working In the Grey
The main benefit I have observed when leading a team through uncertainty is the confidence that you build along the way.
When people are always working on familiar tasks and completing predictable work, it’s easy for them to feel sluggish and bored.
However, when you and your team succeed in delivering a project in ambiguous and difficult circumstances, the feelings of motivation and accomplishment are far greater.
Not only that, you’ll come up with new ways of doing things that you’d never have dreamt of when stuck in the status quo!
Team members also build resilience and gain new skills and experience that they can apply to future roles.
Most importantly, people start to believe they can achieve great things in the future, when they have already done it in the past!
It’s easy for leaders to want to protect their teams from uncertainty and working in the grey. However, you’ll find that if you can succeed, your team will be stronger and motivated on the other side.
Learn More: Why Building Confidence is Critical for Thoughtful Leaders.
Dealing With Uncertainty Takes Several Forms
There are a few types of uncertainty that leaders commonly encounter in workplaces. Firstly, there is the uncertainty of the market and the organisational environment.
If your company is working within a changing environment, you may be uncertain about what this means for you and your team. This uncertainty can cause stress, but often many of these factors are out of your control.
The second form of uncertainty is a lack of clarity about the work you’re undertaking. Often this happens because you know what you want to do, but you’re not quite sure how you’ll get there.
This is what is commonly referred to as “working in the grey”.
I had to do this a lot during my consulting days. Often I found myself working on a project that someone else had sold to a client.
My team and I would look at the project scope and think nervously… “How exactly are we going to do this?”
Understand What You Can Control
I’ve written before about the importance of understanding your “Sphere of Control”. It’s an important concept that really helps leaders to focus their energy where they can actually make a difference.
The idea is simple. Your Sphere of Concern includes things that concern or worry you, where you have no control over them.
This might include the weather, or the decisions that your government makes.
Your Sphere of Influence includes aspects that you can exert some sort of influence on. This includes consulting with your manager about decisions they are about to make.
Your Sphere of Control includes factors that you can directly impact, such as giving direction to your team or the way in which you communicate.
The Sphere of Concern concept is important, because it helps leaders to keep their perspective on the factors they can influence or control directly.
Learn More: How Letting Go Will Help You Take Control.
Productive and Unproductive Worry
Another aspect I like to keep in mind is what I call productive and unproductive worry. We will all worry at one time or another, and this is natural.
However, as we saw earlier, not everything is within our control or influence. Unproductive worry happens when we spend time and energy worrying about things, but we cannot (or do not) take action to fix them.
Productive worry is when our worries result in corrective action. In other words, we worry – but then this encourages us to take steps to improve the situation.
Worrying about whether you’ll fail the exam next week is not productive. However, you can make it productive by using those worries to propel you to study hard for that exam!
Taking time to step back and identify your unproductive and productive worries is helpful as another exercise in gaining perspective on what’s important, and how you can improve your situation.
Learn More: 5 Ways For Leaders to Handle Uncertainty in Decision Making.
How Leaders Can “Work in the Grey” With Their Teams
There are a few things to keep in mind when working the grey. I’ve had to do it often, and here are the things I’ve learned that have helped to keep me grounded.
The key is not to solve the problem in one go, but to make incremental progress.
1. Remember That Working In the Grey Is Supposed to Be Uncomfortable
Working in the grey is not easy, nor is it comfortable.
People don’t like uncertainty, and you’re a person. So, you need to become comfortable being uncomfortable. Sometimes, just reminding yourself that it’s not meant to be easy helps you feel better about your predicament.
Reminding your team of this is also important. Some team members demand certainty and answers, when right now, there are none. Being honest and upfront about this is one of the best ways to handle this in the short term.
However, this is just the first tip. Go easy on yourself and your team, and keep in mind that uncertainty is uncomfortable.
The next few points will help you to work through the grey and drive down some of that uncertainty.
2. When Working In the Grey, Develop a Vision
When working in the grey, it is quite common to know roughly where you want to go, but to feel much less certain about how you’re going to get there.
To provide some certainty to your team, it’s important to set the vision. A vision is a statement of an ideal future state – the place you want to be.
At the start, it’s not critical that you know exactly how you will get there.
Without a vision, it’s difficult to give your team confidence in your direction, and it’s really hard to explain why it’s important.
A vision for your team might be to “Be completely paperless” or “To provide a seamless online offering to our customers”.
This doesn’t say how you’re going to do the work. But at least you know where you’re going, and you’ll be able to communicate why you want to get there.
Then you can focus all of your efforts on reducing the uncertainty to move towards your goal.
Learn More: The Power of Setting a Direction For Your Team.
3. Keep a Log of Questions and Concerns
When you’re working with uncertainty, it’s important to become a little more structured. When normally you might just “play it by ear”, you should now really start writing things down.
Start by using a spreadsheet or a system that you generally use to structure your work. Then, you need to capture some information to flesh out the problem.
The important purpose of this exercise is to record questions (and the answers), concerns and information gaps relating to what you’re working through. To do this, use the following simple list as a prompt to capture your information:
- What questions do you have about your project or uncertain situation?
- How will you find out the answers? Which people or sources can help you?
- What are you concerned about? What information would you need to clarify or resolve these concerns?
Doing this exercise collaboratively is important to try to capture as much as you can. The more input you have, the more you’ll understand the bigger picture.
Solving the Jigsaw Puzzle
Think of your ambiguous situation like a jigsaw puzzle.
When you start, you’ll have a mess of pieces. Then you’ll identify the pieces on the edge of the puzzle which provide you with a frame to work within.
You’ll know the end game, because you’ve established your vision already.
Before long, you’ll have identified the whole boundary of the puzzle.
After that, it’s simply a matter of filling in the gaps.
You can do this by starting to identify actions, based on your list of open questions above. Then, you can assign the actions to people and set a timeline for their completion.
And voila! You have a little plan going. Feeling better yet?
4. When Working in the Grey, Stand on the Shoulders of Giants
Don’t go it alone. See if you can find help from those who have walked the path before.
Isaac Newton (and John of Salisbury before him) famously wrote that he has “Seen further by standing on the shoulders of giants”. In other words, he built on the knowledge from his predecessors to progress even further than they did.
You can do the same, by talking to experienced mentors in your workplace, or perhaps enlisting the help of consultants who have done the work before.
You can research the topic online, or talk to people in other organisations that have done similar work in the past. I have found that other companies are often eager and willing to share their experiences, particularly when they operate in different industries.
You don’t have all the answers, but someone else might just have some for you.
Learn More: 5 Ways Great Leaders Keep Learning.
5. Make a Plan For a Plan
I’m a big fan of planning, and when you’re working in the grey, planning is critical.
The challenge is that you don’t have all the answers. But fear not, we have a solution for this – planning milestones.
Basically, a planning milestone is a point in time by which you will have a plan.
It’s useful because it gives you and your team a target to hit, even when you don’t have all the details.
For example, you might say that by the end of the next week, you’ll have a plan for the next phase of your project.
This means that the actions in your plan up to that point will all revolve around answering questions, resolving uncertainty and understanding the timelines for the next phase.
Some people don’t bother having a plan at all, because “We won’t know until we get there”. This is a mistake, because there are many benefits to having a plan, even if it’s not perfect.
You can learn more about them in the link to my podcast episode below!
Learn More: Episode 58: Why Leaders Should Do More Planning (and Why They Don’t).
6. When Working In the Grey, Know What You’re Going to Do Next
Related to the previous plan for a plan, an important part of working in the grey is knowing what you need to do next.
You don’t need to have all the information. However, if you have many open questions then you need to know what your next step is to find the answers.
Knowing your next step allows you to communicate and provide some certainty to your team and your own manager.
It also allows you to tell people “I don’t know just yet, but I’m taking the following steps to move forward.”
Working in the grey and dealing with uncertainty can definitely be stressful.
However, in our fast changing world, it is inevitable that you’ll need to handle it at some point in your leadership journey.
Hopefully the information provided is helpful, and I wish you the best of luck working in the grey and coming out successful on the other side!
Great article Ben! thanks for sharing.
Thanks Glenn, appreciate the feedback.
Hi Ben, great article (though I listened to the podcast version). I wanted to share that I made this a required listen for my leaders this week. Then I had them “reply-all” with their take-aways. It was interesting to see what was meaningful for each of them – and between them all they covered everything, so also a good review! Thanks for your blog/podcasts – they are always insightful and in very manageable chunks. Cheers!
Hi Michelle, that’s great to hear and I’m glad you learned some new insights from your team.
Thanks for taking the time to comment and let me know – I really appreciate it!