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What to do when you have no idea what to do

Whether you run a corner store or an international division, you’re an entrepreneur. We’re all entrepreneurs now.

5 min read



Each month, When Growth Stalls examines why businesses and brands struggle and how they can overcome their obstacles and resume growth. Steve McKee is the president of McKee Wallwork + Co., an advertising agency that specializes in working with stalled, stuck and stale brands. The company was recognized by Advertising Age as 2015 Southwest Small Agency of the Year. McKee is also the author of “When Growth Stalls” and “Power Branding.”

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At my firm we specialize in helping stalled, stuck and stale companies turn their fortunes around, which means we often deal with unusual and thorny challenges. As much confidence as I have in our abilities, I often feel intimidated when we take on a new assignment.

Intimidation, however, is unproductive. In my firm’s case, we’ve developed a proprietary process that enables us to overcome our apprehension and make progress in even the most confusing conditions. It’s based on four simple steps that can be applied to any complex problem. They may be beneficial to you as you face whatever it is you’re now facing.

Stay calm

As much as it appears that you’re the only one groping in the dark, we all are — at least sometimes. Most of us are just adept at not showing it. But it’s difficult to be inventive when you’re intimidated, so instead of anguishing over the problem, embrace the challenge; who better to solve it but you?

Start asking questions

Work your way through the “Journalist’s Six” – Who? What? When? Where? Why? How? You may have very little time (such as when you’re facing a PR crisis) or it may be wise to move at a more deliberate pace (if, for example, you’re a company’s new CEO). You may not even know how to define the problem or even what questions to ask. Start asking anyway.

Ask Google. Ask your back office. Ask your front line. Ask vendors. Ask clients. Ask colleagues. Sometimes you can even ask competitors. Most people, most of the time, are willing to help, though nobody will have the complete picture. That’s what you’re trying to piece together.

Don’t be afraid to look ignorant or ill-informed; you have to hack your way through the jungle to get to the clearing. It’s unpleasant work taking a machete to confusion, but it’s better than allowing it to close in on you. It’s no coincidence that QA stands for both “questions and answers” and “quality assurance.” The former is how you achieve the latter.

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Reflect on proven principles

What do you know to be true? Of what have you become convinced? What are your guiding philosophies? These are what got you to where you are, so take some time to reflect on your principles.

“People aren’t rational.” “Human nature never changes.” “Incentives matter.” “It’s not the crime, it’s the cover-up.” “Contradictions kill credibility.” “Speak the truth in love.”

Not all principles apply to every situation, but every situation requires the application of principles. The reason it takes a while to work your way up in business is that you must learn the ropes for yourself, sometimes the hard way. By the time you attain a leadership position, you have developed a management philosophy, whether you’ve articulated it or not.

Articulate it now. Reflect on past failures and successes. Write down what you’ve learned. And begin to connect the dots between the puzzle pieces you’re now turning up and what you’ve come to know and trust. If your principles are true, they’ll be true to you.

Take steps, however small

A client of mine once casually remarked over lunch, “An entrepreneur is someone who can make progress in an ambiguous environment.” Whether you run a corner store or an international division, you’re an entrepreneur. We’re all entrepreneurs now.

You may need to deal once and for all with a problem employee. You may need to risk renegotiating with an important client. You may need to completely reinvent your company. Whatever the case, intent without action is hollow. You need to do something.

Wisdom would suggest that you move deliberately, recognizing that the ice on which you tread might be thinner than you expected. But the situation may also call for a sprint across the pond. If so, part of your task is mitigating the risk of falling through.

That’s also part of the reward. You didn’t rise to your level of leadership because you solved simple problems. You rose because you solved tough ones. The higher you go, the more complex the issues you must deal with become. And the more satisfaction you achieve by solving them.

Stay calm. Ask questions. Apply your principles. And take small (or large) steps. Sounds simpler than it is, but it’s guaranteed to help you overcome inertia and begin to make progress. The next time you have no idea what to do, you now have an idea what to do.