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3 ways to effectively deal with uncertainty

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This post is by Trish Gorman Clifford, a co-author of “What I Didn’t Learn in Business School: How Strategy Works in the Real World.” She has consulted for The L.E.K. Partnership and McKinsey & Co., and has taught MBAs and executives at Columbia, Duke, Wharton, and other corporate and academic institutions.

Sometimes you must jump from the high dive. Sometimes you must leap before you look.

When it comes your time to face such a moment, there are three truths that can help you convince yourself and others to move forward with a less-than-perfect plan:

The perfect is the enemy of the good

Voltaire is credited with this quote from the 1700s, but its value is perennial. The quest for perfection still tends to crowd out efforts that are satisfactory, or may even be best in class. There have only been 20 perfect games in the history of baseball, but every game and every season has many winners and losers.

Remember, business is a game where relative value matters far more than absolute value. Your firm’s less-than-perfect plan may still beat anyone else’s current best effort. So pursue the activities that allow you to beat today’s opponent and prepare for tomorrow’s contests, rather than focusing overmuch on the ideal product or service.

Don’t wait for the paint to dry

One CEO I know likes to say, “Don’t wait for the paint to dry before finding out if your customers like the color.” He learned this lesson the hard way, heading up his first major product launch, and investing a lot of time and energy in making sure the initial production run was perfect. He barely made his deadline, due to a few additional hours needed to literally dry the paint. Unfortunately, the colors were — to put it mildly — not a hit.

Depending on your product, perhaps you don’t even need to worry about painting if you can discern consumer preferences from a set of “paint chips.” Translate this metaphor into something relevant for your industry.

Wait-and-see is not a strategy

When is doing nothing a career-limiting move?

Most people worry about whether they may live to regret decisions made or actions taken. However, often the move you don’t make is the one that is truly career-limiting; the missed opportunity, the experiment you didn’t try, the partnership discussion that never happened, or the meeting you didn’t attend.

Of course you want to look before you leap, but you may find yourself asking the same “Should we act now?” or “Is it time to invest?” questions over and over. Instead, look at the situation differently, by exploring the following questions:

  • In retrospect, will it be obvious there was a missed opportunity?
  • Could you take a manageable risk and gain valuable learning (even if you fail)?
  • What “no regrets” moves can you make now?

So what are you waiting for? If you are waiting for things to settle down before making a big decision or a major investment, you aren’t alone. But you may be making a big mistake.

To outperform your competition, use times of uncertainty to improve — not just maintain — your position. Shift yourself and your team away from play-it-safe thinking and toward strategic action that benefits your firm and its stakeholders. The career you save may be your own.

Image credit, narvikk, via iStockphoto