Ask Dr. Job’s chief contributor, Sandra Pesmen, is a member of the Chicago Journalism Hall of Fame and author of “DR. JOB’s Complete Career Guide.”

Winner of several journalism awards, Pesmen is a graduate of the University of Illinois Media College at Urbana, and is listed in several Who’s Who editions. She also has been Corporate Features Editor of Crain Communications Inc., founding Features Editor of Crain’s Chicago Business and a reporter/features writer for The Chicago Daily News.

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Jump Start Your Business

It's been a long recession and if you, like so many others, feel that your own business has been "stuck" in one place, there are ways to get it jump-started again. And the first thing you have to understand is that there is a "new normal" 

Advice in that vein comes from the new book Adaptive Action: Leveraging Uncertainty in Your Organization that Glenda Eoyang co-wrote with Royce Holladay .

 "Forget five-year planning cycles: Even five-month planning cycles don't work," asserts Eoyang.. Forget fixing the 'root cause' of your challenges in a world where diverse and multiple forces from innumerable sources influence decisions you make and actions you take. Today's outcomes depend on yesterday's actions and bring unexpected consequences tomorrow.

  "The world is changing at the speed of thought, and it is beyond complex," she adds. "We have to find new perspectives and tools that help us meet those challenges." 

          In the past, Eoyang explains, the world was stable enough to imagine planning for a three-to-five-year horizon. But as yesterday's dreams become tomorrow's "old hat," it's impossible to create strategies you can count on; measures that will hold their meaning; or a stable, unchanging picture of the future. 

  "What happens is, you try working harder," says Eoyang. "You try reading new leadership books. You try the newest versions of old strategies. But nothing works. You've hit the wall, and you see no options for action. You're stuck...and that's a terrible feeling."

 So how can we focus our work and move forward in coherent and productive ways? Eoyang and Holladay offer Adaptive Action, an alternative that provides quick feedback in cycles of observation, analysis, and action that can be as short as a heartbeat, as long as a year, and span across a lifetime. It's accessible enough that anyone in an organization can use it to solve problems, plan for the future, and make more effective decisions as they deal with day-to-day realities and uncertainties along the way.

Adaptive Action allows organizations to see and understand the patterns in the challenges they face, by asking them to ask and answer three deceptively simple questions: What? So what? Now what?

          "These questions get people focused and thinking in ways that allow them to break through their paralysis and take intelligent action," notes Eoyang. "While the process of questioning and planning is natural and intuitive in how we all think about change, Adaptive Action takes you beyond the first level of seeing your system. It enables you to see deep into the dynamics of decisions, interaction, and behavior to help you identify the most productive and best-informed actions."

          In the What? stage, those engaged in problem solving simply describe current reality. What's happening in the system? What's happening in the larger world? What is being seen, felt, and experienced? In this stage, people name and describe, as thoroughly as they can, the current status, focusing on the challenge they need to address. 
          The difference here lies in the need to go beyond what has always been seen and described. People who engage in Adaptive Action have to see beyond the surface descriptions and begin to explore the underlying patterns that create their worlds.          The following questions  are an example:

 •  What do I know for sure about what is communicated and how?

• What patterns do I observe in part, whole, greater whole-in the ways people share, gather, and use information at the individual, group, team levels?

• What feelings or reactions do I see among staff as they share information or learn new information?

• What lies on the horizon in terms of need to share information or in terms of the fallout from how communications currently happen?

• What data do I have about information flow; data use; and times, places, and situations where people say they don't have the information they need?

• What stories have I heard and from whom, recounting difficulties gathering info and/or difficulties getting people to hear and respond?

• What has changed over time, relative to this challenge?

• What are the gaps in what I know about this challenge or seemingly related situations?

QUESTION 2: So what?

          Questions asked at this phase might be:

• So what doesn't fit for me-for us-in terms of how people seek, use, and share information, as opposed to what we expected to see? In terms of what we need to have happening?

• So what is the difference between what I/we want and what I/we have when it comes to sharing and using information?

• So what led us here? Might lead us out? How can we change expectations about seeking and sharing information? How might we change how people step into accountability for knowing what they need to know?

• So what constraints can I observe? What limits/supports effective information flow? What limits/supports information use? What limits/supports accountability for sharing information? 

• So what are the most relevant

• Boundaries? Where information flows well? Where it gets blocked? Where it's received? Where it's well used?

• Differences? In how people seek and send information? In how they use or ignore information? In what information people want or use?

• Connections? That brings people together? That makes meaning of the information they have? That extends into other parts of the organization? To the greater landscape? That is newer? That is older?

• So what are my options for action to shift how people seek, gather, generate, and use the information that is available to them in the organization?

                               QUESTION 3: Now what?

          In the Now what? stage, people take action and then assess the impact on the challenge at hand. Did the situation change? In what ways? What were the unintended consequences that might have emerged? What's happening now? What am I uncertain about now? If people pay attention, they find themselves back to the next What? stage, describing the patterns as they stand after taking action. That's the iterative nature of Adaptive Action-people always end up at the start of another cycle.

          Based on their new understandings about what was really happening in their department, managers can began to find ways to reward and recognize effective information flow. 

Here are the kinds of questions to ask at the Now what? phase:

• Now what will I do to help people share, gather, and use data and information that informed their work?
• Now who might I include in action? Who can do what? Who is involved and who needs to be involved?
• Now what will I expect to see as system change? What will be the behaviors that will indicate change? What operational systems and functions might change and in what ways?
• Now what unintended consequences might arise? What should I watch for as people embrace or ignore the actions we take?
• Now what will mark success or failure? How will I know these actions are or are not working? What will I see at the system level? What will I see among my teams? What will I see different among individuals?
• Now what do I need to communicate to others? Who needs to know what about these issues, challenges, and changes?

                   "When you are able to understand a challenge from a new perspective, you have a better chance to figure out new ways to respond," says Eoyang. "You're basically saying, 'Okay, all of this uncertainty isn't bad. Nor is it good. It just is...and here are a few simple questions that can help me live with it.' There's something so liberating about making that shift-and once you do, you're ready to move forward in ways that lead to sustainable innovation and productivity."
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