Navigating the Unknown: 7 Reflection Tools


This is a re-post of an article that Gathering ’11 co-host Michelle James wrote a few years ago. I thought it was relevant to share here as we enter the unknown to co-create a better future. ~ David

Navigating the Unknown: 7 Reflection Tools

1. Change the lens you use for seeing the unknown. Do you see the unknown something to be feared, challenged, dealt with, managed or overcome? Or is it something to be navigated, explored, embraced, cultivated, or expressed? If you think of facing the unknown in your work what thoughts and emotions come to mind? What metaphor? A beast to be tamed, a wave to be surfed, a game to be played? How we perceive the concept of this unfolding future we call the unknown determines how easily we navigate it.

2. Consciously engage uncertainty. Whether we like it or not the unknown has now become our working partner. By actively engaging the unknown in small ways at first – such as with a low-risk/high-ambiguity project – you develop the essential skills to work with it in larger high-risk/high-ambiguity arenas. What would it take for you to go deeper into situations, pushing past what you currently know, before going forward? It feels counterproductive in our fast-paced culture, but by taking the up front time to go deep and explore multiple dimensions, next-level solutions begin to reveal themselves.

3. Allow the process to be messy. When we start consciously exploring unknown, there is a period of time where logic, order, and organization are put on hold as we get into the unearthing of new information. It can seem illogical, nonsensical, and even foreign-sounding as it emerges. Like all births, new directions are not necessarily tidied up and pretty as they enter the world. Similar to a baby being born, the ideas, structures and systems that emerge from the unknown space can look unrecognizable at first. The task it to continue to draw whatever shows up forth, amidst it messiness, until the new order emerges. There is a natural, self-organizing system at play in every emergent situation. How much time and space do you give to ideas to go formulate?

4. Actively leave the familiar. Just because something worked for one group in one situation doesn’t mean it is necessarily repeatable. Look back to the past for what is relevant to the new situation and bring it with you. Leave the rest behind. It is in our nature to seek the shelter of the familiar even if we know it is no longer serving us. Leaving what is comfortable and not working to dip into the “empty space” to draw forth the new is challenging. Do you have compassion for yourself (or others) when you are frustrated, overwhelmed and feel like you hit a wall?

5. Use multidimensional creative approaches. By using a variety of creativity tools, techniques and approaches you can engage more of your brain and more of your senses. The human habit is to approach uncertain situations with the same set of analytical tools each time. No matter how focused and capable your thought process, unless you do something different to activate new parts of the brain, the information will still travel down your same neural pathways in the same way and you will come up with the same types of solutions. If you purposefully integrate alternative methods, whole brain thinking and multi-sensory stimulation, awareness is heightened and you become more responsive and resilient. What are some ways you can intentionally do this?

6. Be the Beginner. Probably the most significant, yet challenging aspect of navigating the unknown is the willingness to enter the beginner mind. We live in a knowledge based society. We are educated to have the right answers. The more we know, the more intelligent, capable, and competent we are considered. We are rewarded and recognized for that which we know, not for that which we don’t know. Yet, in a world where the word innovation is showing up in exponentially more mission and vision statements, this is often exactly what is needed to move forward. It’s not about abandoning what you know, but bringing it to the table to sit side by side with what you do not know.

7. Accept the human paradox. Within the paradox of human nature, being what it is, the unknown is both dangerous and exciting, a threat to be feared and a mystery to be revealed. We are mystery seekers. There is a multi-billion dollar mystery industry–books, movies, adventure tours, Internet games, and haunted houses. There is something about walking around the corner and not knowing what will pop out that is inherently exciting and alive to us. Uncovering and discovering are in our nature–just look at a child exploring the environment, looking behind every crack and crevice for what’s next.
While a part of us may love the mystery, we have another part of us, in our reptilian primal brain, that has been hard wired to fear what is around the corner. Our ancestors knew well knowledge of our surroundings gave us control of a dangerous world. There was a real danger in leaving the safety of the cave. This is still true today. When we perceive threats to survival, we like to know what is next. Ironically, the same world that makes people want to retreat to their caves to hide from the “predators” is this same world that is requiring new levels of innovation to adapt and thrive. When is change exciting and when is it threatening to you?

The more you work with the unknown as a co-creative partner, the easier it is to stay grounded in the winds of change. It takes more than just deciding to embrace uncertainty to be able to do it. It takes understanding where you are in relationship to the unknown now, and then consciously choosing to be with the discomfort, and perhaps excitement, of exploring new territory. Underneath business buzz words, mission statements and strategic goals, there is an unsure human facing a new world. It takes practice. As with mastering any new skill, navigating the unknown is an ongoing process.  ~ Michelle James