Dealing With Unexpected Business Issues

By Scott R. Singer  |  Posted 2010-06-28

You may be an inspiring leader, able to rally divided individuals into a winning team. You could be a brilliant visionary, able to invent innovative ways to train newbies or track data. Or you might be a compelling communicator, able to charm executives and captivate potential customers.

In the past, possessing any of these talents would make you a business All Star. But today, it will only mark you as a phenom: someone with potential. To become a hall of famer—a long-term winner—you need to prove that you know how to hit a curveball by confronting and regularly overcoming the unexpected.

Hitting curveballs has become the indispensable skill for long-term business survival in this economic environment. If you want to have a future as an entrepreneur, an independent professional or an executive in a corporate structure, you must be able to deal with unanticipated events and scenarios. The unexpected has always occurred, and business leaders have always had to deal with it, but things are different today because of four distinct, though interconnected, trends.

First, we’re in a transitional period, politically, economically, culturally and technologically. Politically, the United States might emerge as the sole superpower, but the European Union, China, India and Russia might all vie with the United States for dominance. Economically, business is becoming increasingly global in both structure and operations. Culturally, America is close to becoming a “minority majority” nation, resulting in a diverse and potentially less-predictable culture. And technologically, everything is happening too fast to even generalize about.

Second, the pace of change is constantly accelerating, and this has placed a greater strain on everyone in IT and business. We have to think and do everything faster. Opportunities appear and disappear with blinding speed. The line between work and life has blurred into nonexistence. The only certainty is that everything changes—unbelievably quickly.

Third, it’s more than the pace of change that’s problematic. The changes are coming in areas and in ways that can’t be predicted as accurately as before; every purposeful action produces unintended, often-unavoidable consequences. The unstable nature of this era and our inability to predict consequences become even more difficult when the accelerating pace of change is added.

To make matters worse, the fourth trend is that we seem to be less resilient than ever. The quality of America’s infrastructure and technology has spoiled us. We know that hospitals will have the drugs and medical care we need in an emergency, that the supermarket will have the ingredients we need to make tonight’s dinner, and that the fire department, police department or ambulance will come when we call.

But, when things don’t turn out as we planned—when the servers go down or the network hiccups—we don’t know how to deal with it. We’ve lost what psychologists call resilience, defined as the capacity to withstand stressors without becoming dysfunctional, whether it’s clinical depression or just a flash of anger.

Resilience is largely a learned trait. The more often we face unexpected or stressful situations and overcome them, the more confidence we gain and the more resilient we become for future crises. Confronting and overcoming little hurdles throughout life prepares us for the big obstacles. But having to face so few minor hurdles during our daily lives has left us vulnerable to major curveballs when they come our way.

These four trends—the transitory nature of our current era, ever-accelerating change, increasingly unforeseen consequences and the decline in the psychological resilience of the average American—mean that learning how to hit a curveball is today’s single most important skill for success, not just in IT and business, but in life itself.

How to Hit a Curveball

When I started to study the world’s best curveball hitters in every walk of life, I thought I’d discover secrets I could adopt and pass along: specific actions that enable these individuals to repeatedly confront and overcome the unexpected in business and life. What I discovered, however, was that it’s not specific actions that account for their success; it’s an approach that requires following a process.

The process starts by stepping up to the plate. While it’s human nature to feel ashamed or embarrassed by being caught flat-footed and to want to conceal what’s happening, procrastination and avoidance do nothing but extend pain and problems. Revealing that you’ve been blindsided removes the awkwardness and enables people close to you to provide support, advice and comfort.

An excellent way to avoid this urge to hide your mistakes is to feel empowered rather than victimized. Instead of asking yourself who’s to blame for what happened to you, ask what you should do to fix it.

Next, overcome your natural pessimism so you can set aside the fears that accompany curveballs. Find ways to fight off the worst-case scenario and deal with the situation realistically. You need to be the batter, not the ball. Perhaps the best way to get past this pessimism is to find some ways you can be of service to others, which will put your own situation in perspective.

The reality is that you can’t do everything, and some things are beyond your power to change. Let go of the things beyond your control, focus on what you can do, and concentrate on matters you can control. One way to handle that is to take a situation that seems beyond your control and break it down into small, discrete steps: things so small they can be finished in, say, an hour. This can make the task manageable, while also boosting your self-confidence with each completed task.

You need to look at the situation from a fresh perspective. In developing a plan to deal with unexpected events, it’s often essential to embrace nonlinear thinking that’s equally unexpected. Curveballs, by their very nature, are rarely solvable through conventional thinking.

So ask yourself a question that’s the opposite of the one you really want answered. Come up with offbeat solutions and try to apply them successfully. Instead of brainstorming for solutions, brainstorm for ways to make things worse. These approaches can help you break out of routine patterns.

A Pitch You Can Hit

No matter how eager you are to get over this curveball, you need to be patient. The incredible speed of change encourages speedy action, but you must make sure you wait for a pitch you can hit. Persistence beats resistance, so it’s vital to give yourself and your plan the time needed for it to be successful.

You can develop the needed perspective and patience by changing the way you talk to yourself. Don’t use phrases like “I have to,” or “I need to,” which add to a sense of urgency. And don’t call your response to the curveball a “project” or “effort.” Those terms make the necessary actions seem titanic. Instead, call it a “task” or a “job,” which are finite descriptors. Also, don’t let the curveball take over your entire business and personal schedule.

Curveballs offer opportunities, but to take advantage of them, you must shift from a defensive to an offensive stance. Think of yourself as a competitor and look at the situation your organization is facing with the goal of taking advantage of it. For example, imagine that you’re an entrepreneur looking to start up a business that will compete with your company. How would you do it?

Truly great managers are those who are able to institutionalize their ability to hit curveballs. By filling out your team with other curveball hitters, you can create a group that fosters innovative thinking to ensure your company’s long-term success. Rather than looking elsewhere for these individuals, try to develop them from within. Pass along the techniques you’ve learned and applied. Coach them through their own curveballs.

Finally, the most successful individuals are those who are able to apply their skills outside the ballpark. They realize that the ability to hit curveballs can be applied to both business and personal life. The ultimate winner is someone who learns to succeed at both ends of life’s double-header.

Scott R. Singer is a strategic change expert and author of How to Hit a Curveball: Confront and Overcome the Unexpected in Business. He has spent the past 20 years advising companies on how to adapt to change and embrace technological advances.