Uncertainty & Action in the Hamster Wheel


Uncertainty & Action are two words not always used in close association. Action usually implies moving forward with intent and some predetermined direction, while Uncertainty usually involves hesitation accompanied with a fervent wish to move away from the uncertainty.

There is a fundamental dissonance that has been created through the need to work in uncertain environments and the need to act and do something (anything) that is now driving behaviours not unlike that of a hamster running furiously on a wheel.

The need do something and just as importantly, to be seen to be doing something, has far exceeded the need to stop and thoughtfully design new and improved ways forward that will not involve endless running in a static wheel that is taking us to no new places.

Increasing uncertainty creates discomfort and we tend to respond by dropping our eyesight and defaulting into patterns of behaviour based on past experience. That is, we keep doing the same things we have always done. This provides the perception of action, but not the type of action we need to address the big challenges and opportunities that are hitting us. We seek to do things cheaper and faster in the flawed belief that this will resolve our issues. What we are finding however is that this is not resolving issues, simply creating an epidemic of “busyness” now engulfing so many organisations.

The usual approach to tough times when more from less is demanded, is to default into what we know, not what we need to know.  I like to use the metaphor of driving a car. As you drive you need to be able to keep your eye on that which is coming toward you, the pothole, tree, curve in the road or that unforeseen obstacle. To do this we need to be primarily looking forward through the windscreen. If we simply seek to move forward based on what we already know we are attempting to drive by looking in the rear-view mirror at that which has already happened.

When we drive this way we tend to apply reductionist approaches to those things we have and know. Austerity measures are usually at the core. We are all familiar with job and budget cuts, staff freezes, project down-sizing and the list goes on. We attempt to try and do the same things better, faster and cheaper. The reality however is that faster and better very rarely equate to cheaper – unless of course the appropriate design thinking is applied. These standard approaches are characterised by short-term management thinking and very rarely lead to positive long-term outcomes.

The ability to drive while looking through the windscreen allows for greater navigation and forward design and constitutes a longer-term leadership thinking.

While both types of thinking are important we default all too readily to the former.

One of the most universally used examples of short-term, rear-view thinking is when the Learning & Development function in an organisation is the first to be “streamlined” once tough economic times hit. This is a seemingly retrograde example – Why would an organisation start to reduce their learning capacity at the very time new thinking is needed to address pressing issues? (This view is of course based upon the ideal that our L&D Departments are adding measurable business value. Perhaps one of the reasons they are the first to go is that they are not seen to do so?)

How do you know when your organisation is focused on the rear-view mirror and condemned to the hamster wheel? Just a handful of indicators are listed below, what others can you add? There’s plenty!

* Great store is placed on long-term strategic plans, aimed at idealised futures based upon the assumption that A+B will always =C

* The first (and sometimes only) port of call  in tough times are austerity measures.

* The L&D function is a tick the box one & the training ROI isn’t measured in ways that demonstrate real vs perceived value.

* People are overcome with “busyness” in the day to day operational tasks and minutiae.

* The most senior people are insufficiently strategic and spend way too long on the operational dance floor and not in the balcony above.

* The senior people talk about innovation and doing things differently, but do not follow through with meaningful action and results.

Perhaps the most unfortunate aspect of being too busy to engage with the present due to our preoccupation with the past, is that while there may be short term gain, the long term prognosis of rear-view thinking is almost always negative. We may have come in under budget for 5 years running, but what are the long term consequences of the cost-cutting you applied to get there? These tend to be dramatically more costly than the short term savings gained.

It’s always worth stopping and considering whether the action we are taking involves looking forward through the windscreen or are we simply defaulting to action based upon what has been happening in the rear-view mirror?

Are we running inside the hamster wheel or have we stepped outside it to come up with better ways to move us forward?



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About the Author

Frank Connolly is the Principal of “Think Quick”, a business that adds value through thinking differently. His work history covers all sectors and includes initiatives that have yielded bottom line benefit in the 10’s of millions of dollars.

Frank has worked across Australia, South East Asia, China, the Middle East and Africa where he has trained and facilitated multiple thinking methods and been acknowledged by Edward de Bono as one of the foremost practitioners of the de Bono thinking methods worldwide.

Frank believes strongly that if we can improve the way we think, the actions that follow also improve.


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