January 26, 2019

Getting "Unstuck"

Written by Wendy BittnerWendy Bittner

Today I’ve spent a lot of time staring at a blank page.  I’m meant to be in the middle stages of writing a book.  “Books don’t get written,” my mind screams, “if words don’t get typed!”  Just.  Start.  Writing.  I am “officially” writing this book with two of my partners.  We have already been collaborating with many more of our colleagues, some of whom have contributed great ideas.  People are ready to test ideas on themselves and with clients.  Rarely does a day go by when someone doesn’t ask me, “how is the book coming?”  The list of people waiting for me to say something looms large in my increasingly paranoid brain.  “People can’t engage and give feedback,” my mind screams, “if there is nothing to respond to!”  Just.  Start.  Writing.

We have a structure.  We’ve mapped stuff out on big flip charts and hundreds of post-its.  Keith has done a lot of research, made several sets of notes, and started drafting a couple of chapters.  We’ve had firm-wide calls to get advice from a broader set of our colleagues (who, by the way, encouraged us just to…oh…Just.  Start.  Writing).  Keith’s already begun writing, and I have topics assigned to my “to do” list.  It’s not as if there’s no idea and nothing to work from.  In fact, quite the opposite!  Yet, in the midst of all this information, with that blank page staring at me, I found myself swirling in questions on two fronts:

  • The “get it right before you start” front:  What is the right thing to do?  What should I write?  Should I be reading and researching instead?  Will it be a waste of time?  How do I make sure that I’m being efficient?    
  • The “will it even be possible to create value?front:  What do you REALLY know about what to do in complexity?  Why would anyone want to read that?  Hasn’t someone already written this stuff?  Don’t you need to do more (basic) research before you begin?  Aren’t your partners better writers than you are anyway?  Wow, is this going to turn into one of those books that should just be a ten-page paper?

Having said that, let me tell you that this is supposed to be a book about “what to do when you don’t know what to do.”  We intend it for anyone, especially anyone who is a leader of some variety, who is feeling increasingly overwhelmed—often to the point of paralysis—by the complexity with which they find themselves surrounded.  It’s meant to be a book about “the small moves you can make” that might have an unexpectedly big impact on your ability to make progress in an unpredictable world.  It’s meant to be a book about moving, about becoming “unstuck.”  How ironic that, today, as I sat down to write, I found myself “stuck.”  I was paralyzed by a complex swirl of thoughts and information and assumptions…caught in exactly the trap of overwhelm I was supposed to be helping others to escape. 

As frequently happens when we run into complex challenges, I was looking for answers that would “fix” my dilemma all in one go.  The answers to those swirling questions seemed to center around finding the “right” thing to write.  Let me do some more research, go back and look again at the outlines, re-read what has already been written…because heaven forbid that I should start writing and write the “wrong” thing.  It was analysis paralysis…making the complex complicated…assuming I had to know the answer before I could even start…all those things I teach my clients to avoid.  Who knew that this would turn out to be a blessing in disguise?

As the day wore on, the specter of an upcoming call with Jennifer was growing.  I had promised myself that I would have something—anything—to share with her by the time we talked.  The minutes were ticking by, and there was that blank page, still staring blankly back at me.  Eventually, the time came, and I caught myself hoping she’d say that she needed to move the call.  Anything to avoid looking like a lazy sloth who wasn’t holding up my end of the work!  (All of this was, by the way, a story and a worry that I’d entirely created for myself.  The call wasn’t even meant to be about the book.  We’d promised each other nothing, but boy, was I convinced I’d dropped the ball.)

Far from being annoyed with me, Jennifer was as patient and empathetic as ever.  Even more importantly, she provided me with a different perspective and a couple of simple moves that sprung the trap that had been holding me back.  Simply by talking to me about the writing process she goes through, she challenged my perspective on what I thought I “should be” doing.  “At this phase of book writing, we’re still just mucking around.  We will continue to write and discard and rewrite many times.  You can write about almost anything and see where it takes you.”  “Hmmm…” I thought.  “You mean every single word I write doesn’t have to be calculated to make it into the book?”  Wow.  Now that was a novel thought!  “Why don’t you try writing about ‘stuckness’?” she asked.  “If the content isn’t flowing, write about the process.”   Excellent!  THAT was something I could do!

Embedded in that short conversation were two small moves that seem to be almost universally applicable when we’re “stuck” in a complex situation:   

  • Small move number 1:  Phone a friend…or even an enemy.  When we’re stuck in complexity and under pressure to move, it’s so easy to become trapped in our own self-reinforcing stories.  Our focus narrows, our desire for control takes over, and we filter out all of the data and ideas that don’t conform to our sense of what “should” be.  In my case, I had told myself a story that I “should be” writing the first pages of my assigned chapter on complex adaptive systems and that anything else would be a waste of time.  Simply by talking to someone else who had a different perspective on writing, my mental model was loosened, and I was able to imagine and try out a different way forward.
  • Small move number 2:  When the content isn’t flowing, look at the process (or vice versa).  In the predictable world, as long as we are expert enough in the content, we can frequently get away with ignoring process.  It might not matter if we have poor meeting hygiene or if we filter out or suppress unwanted information, as long as each expert knows enough and has enough data to act.  In the unpredictable world of complexity, however, because there are so many interconnected parts and no single one of us can hold all of the available information at once, the process—how we engage with each other, how we talk about things, how we interact with the information we have—is equally as important as the content.  This is something I teach frequently to my clients, especially in the context of meetings.  What I learned today is that the same idea has traction for the way I interact with the writing of a book.  When I stepped away from the “what” for a moment to look at (and write about) the “how,” all of a sudden I had freedom to move.  The words started flowing.

As is so often the case with complexity, I find myself both humbled and truly excited.  I am humbled, among other things, by the fact that, while I spend a great deal of my time steeped in and teaching about complexity, I am not immune to its traps!  Yep, Wendy, there you go again, trying to “get it right” when you know it’s not knowable.  I am excited, among other things, about what becomes possible with even a subtle perspective shift or a slightly different approach.  If the content isn’t flowing, just try stepping back and looking at the process…and voila!  1500 words!  We’ve talked about wanting this book to be a book where we, as authors, stand shoulder-to-shoulder with our readers who are feeling a sense of overwhelm and help each other to make small moves forward (rather than having it be a siren call from the promised land where we know how to do everything right).  As I keep swimming in this complex activity of writing a book, I couldn’t be more thrilled to be experiencing precisely the kind of help we’re hoping to provide.  At first completely paralyzed in a swirl of information, questions, and doubt about my ability to get it right, I’ve now got a felt sense of how one or two small, different moves can—even if only temporarily—get me “unstuck.”  How cool is that?

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