After last week’s episode about productivity in a distracted world, I became really curious about some of the underlying causes of distraction (choose bravery instead).
We’re going to talk about one of the biggest emotions causing our distraction. We’ll also talk about VUCA (volatility, uncertainty, complexity, ambiguity) and what that means for us as leaders and small business owners trying to achieve big goals.
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Podcast Episodes Mentioned
- #71: How to Stay Productive in a Distracted World
- #49: Digital Trade-offs + You Are a Gift + Origins Of Grandfathered In (WCB was called Third Paddle)
References: Leadership & VUCA
- Margaret J. Wheatley, Finding Our Way: Leadership for an Uncertain Time
- Taxi Driver
- All the President’s Men
- Bob Johansen, Leaders Make the Future: Ten New Leadership Skills for an Uncertain World
- Leadership for an Uncertain World
- Harvard Business Review, Nathan Bennett and G. James Lemoine, VUCA matrix
- What Does VUCA Really Mean?, Forbes, Jeroen Kraaijenbrink
- Volatility, uncertainty, complexity and ambiguity, Wiki
- Strategy In An Uncertain World, Forbes, Jeroen Kraaijenbrink
- Axios Interview, Sean Parker
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Jen McFarland ditched her comfy C-suite tech project management job in pursuit of freedom. Jen’s goal is to help business leaders like you vet ideas, take ownership of their projects, and incorporate digital marketing from day one.
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Transcript: You Need to Know Why Bravery Wins Every Time
Hello, and welcome back to the Women Conquer Business podcast. After last week’s episode about productivity in a distracted world, I became really curious about some of the underlying causes of distraction. So we’re going to talk about that, including the volatility and uncertainty of this world, and what that means for us as leaders and small business owners trying to achieve big goals. All that and more, here on Women Conquer Business. [music]
Women Conquer Business Intro
My name is Jen McFarland. I help business owners like you lead, plan, and execute their projects for maximum impact. Women-led businesses receive less funding, yet our businesses are more successful. As consumers, we hold the pursestrings. It’s time for us to take on the business world. Welcome to Women Conquer Business. [music]
Starve Distraction, Feed Focus
Welcome back. As I reflected on last week’s episode, I came across this quote. “Starve distraction, feed focus.” I really wish I knew who said that because I think it’s pretty awesome.
And I also think that last week’s guest, productivity expert Mark Struczewski, would really like that. Last week, we talked about a distracted world, primarily how tech drives distraction. How email and social media are designed to distract us and take up as much time as possible. I talked about this a little bit also on episode 49 of the then-called Third Paddle Podcast.
I talked about how Cal Newport and his books on deep work and digital minimalism were so impactful to me, as it helps me get more in line with my inner thoughts and help me progress as a consultant and a business owner. And how it was about eliminating distractions, including the digital distractions, so that I could be better at what I do.
Digital Distraction is Everyone’s Problem
And I think it’s a big thing for all of us. When I talk to people about not spending as much time on our phones, most people say, “Oh, that’s my kid’s problem. I don’t have a problem with that.” And yet I can’t tell you how many times I go out to dinner and I see a family, and every single person is on their phone. I think digital distraction on technology is real, and I think that last week’s guest would agree with me.
I think Cal Newport would agree with me. And I think that there’s enough science out there that says engaging on our phones so much actually makes it harder for us to concentrate. And I also wanted to touch base again. If you doubt that social media was designed to distract you and to suck you in, if you think that that’s not you, if you think that that’s not the case, let me just share with you one of the early investors in Facebook.
Sean Parker on Facebook’s Design
His name is Sean Parker, and he had a very candid interview in 2017. And he said, “The thought process that went into building these applications, Facebook being the first of them, was all about how do we consume as much of your time and conscious attention as possible? And that means we need to sort of give you a little dopamine hit every once in a while because someone liked or commented on a photo or a post or whatever. And that’s going to get you to contribute more content, and that’s going to get you more likes and comments.”
He then went on to talk about the social-validation feedback loop. So it’s kind of like the more you give, the more you get, but then you’re like, “Wait, why didn’t I get any likes?” So you keep checking to see if you’re going to get more likes and comments. Social media distraction is very real. Just like it’s real that the more distracted we are, the harder it is for us to concentrate.
But as I reflected on last week’s show, I thought it’s just too easy to blame technology alone. We talked a lot about technology last week, and I acknowledged that I’ve talked about it before.
My Curiosity Led Me to Look Again at Distraction
So the thing I got really curious about are some of the underlying causes of distraction. I mean, most of the people who listen to the show are leaders or small business owners, primarily women who just want to achieve their goals.
And we all know that being distracted takes us away from many of the causes that are very important to us. It takes us away from our purpose and the daily tasks that we need to do so that we can have the greatest impact on the people that we help and the causes that we care about. And yet we’re always distracted. So what is that all about?
And I do think that fear of missing out is part of that. I think that part of it is that social media has become, for many communities, kind of the hub, right? Like if you’re not on social media, you don’t know when someone’s birthday party is, or the location of a surprise party, or what’s going on in different aspects of your community that you partake in. Maybe your church communicates through Facebook, or your gym, or a club, it could be anything.
It Could Be Our Mental Health
And so you end up in this infinite feedback loop trying to get information. I can’t tell you how many times that I have gone to read a news article or learn more about a cause that I care about, and I fall into that rabbit hole of just like more, more, more. It’s that fear of missing out, right?
I also think that another tool of distraction are mental health conditions like ADHD, PTSD, and other conditions, maybe anxiety, that just sort of drive us to distract ourselves. And that’s because either we have an attention deficit problem, or we’ve had experiences that have led us to have bad things happen so we get distracted. We get distracted because we need to know that thing that’s going to keep us from having a bad experience, or we have a condition that actually lends itself to spending more time and attention on certain things that may not serve us best. So I think that there are some really deep things that cause us to be distracted. But I also want to be focused in this episode and not cover every single thing that causes us to be distracted.
The Number One Thing That Keeps Us Distracted
So I want to talk about what that means for leaders and business owners. And the number one thing that I thought about when I was reflecting is fear, and I don’t mean fear of missing out. I think it’s bigger and broader than that. And I came across this quote by Marie Curie, it is, “Nothing in life is to be feared, it is only to be understood. Now is the time to understand more so that we may fear less. Now is the time to understand more so that we may fear less.”
So the fear may not just be on missing out. Fear can also be that we are searching and we are looking everywhere to understand. And we might be looking to understand [thing?]. As leaders and business owners, there’s a lot out there to understand especially if you’ve never run a business before. The problem with fear driving you to try to understand is that this fear will never end because of the world that we live in today. See, I think the fear is actually a by-product of the volatility, uncertainty, complexity, and ambiguous world that we live in. And so one of the things that we have to do is have a comfort with the fear and the uncertainty, and have a comfort with the world that we live in. And we’re going to talk about that right after this.
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Fear and Uncertainty are Really Distracting
Welcome back. While researching for this episode, my mind instantly went back to one of the books that has had a tremendous impact on my own thinking: Finding Our Way, Leadership for an Uncertain Time by Margaret Wheatley.
Wheatley is one of the great researchers and leaders talking about leadership and management in this uncertain time. In fact, when I opened up her book just to kind of refresh myself and consider leadership in an uncertain world, I came across this quote.
It’s from Rudolf Bahro. “When the forms of an old culture are dying, the new culture is created by a few people who are not afraid to be insecure.”
I think we are at a time of major cultural shifts in our world. Not only is it unclear what tomorrow will bring for those of us who are in business, I think there’s a lot of things happening in the world that are shifting and changing, and is leading to a lot of fear and uncertainty. So many of us just want to understand what’s [laughter] going on in the world. We’re still sitting with Marie Curie wanting to understand so that we don’t have to live in fear as much. And yet, we always have to consider the unknowns as the [laughter] leaders and business owners working toward big goals. And we have to do this and be comfortable with being insecure.
Be OK with Being Insecure
We have to do this while being okay with being insecure. And we have to do this without fear and without being distracted or paralyzed. Because at every turn, there are new things happening, and shifts, and things on social media, that are disrupting the entire nation for those of us, who are in the US, and honestly, across the world. And the more we learn about things, the more fearful we become and then it turns into this spiral of wanting to understand. Which really just increases our fear and our insecurity. And yet we have to navigate through all of that despite that fear, and despite the insecurity, so that we can reach our goals. Because it’s so easy to just curl up in a ball or sit on social media all day, and not do anything, and that’s paralysis by fear.
Nothing Lasts Forever
You see the world is more than just uncertain, it’s really disruptive. We’re seeing all of the old ways falling apart and being replaced by something new. I’ve watched a couple of old movies pretty recently and I was wondering what these things would look like today. I watched All the President’s Men which is about the Nixon administration’s, watergate and how everything kind of fell apart. And how these two reporters were talking to [Deep?] and trying to navigate what the president has done, why there was a cover-up, and then means for the nation.
The other film that I watched was Taxi Driver. Another film from the 70s that is– I don’t even know how to describe it. But Taxi Driver is about a taxi driver who becomes obsessive and he’s not sleeping, and he turns to violence. And as I look at these two films, sure there are somethings about– it’s not the 1970s anymore, Jen.
Of course, they’re going to be different but then also thinking about all of the things that have changed that would lead to these films being different like Taxi Driver. Would it really be called Taxi Driver or would it be called Lift Driver or Uber Driver? And would there as much talk with fellow taxi drivers as occurs throughout that film? Or would it be like sitting on your cellphone and talking to your buddies and would that lead you to the same conclusions as there were in Taxi Driver?
As for All The President’s Men, how much would have been done also via cellphone or how would computer research have affected it? Because there are scenes in that movie where people are just pouring over books. And now, people are questioning the value of a library and if they should exist or not because we have Google. The answer is yes. Libraries are important, books are important. But some of these things– and honestly how important are papers? Because All The President’s Men was all around the newspaper business. See the thing is the taxi business and the newspaper business have been completely disrupted, and are in the process of potentially being replaced by something new.
Back in the 70s, these were pillars of things that we were certain were going to exist forever. But today, I mean, we have to question how viable either of these things are. And when you live in a world where everything is more uncertain and disruptive, we have to consider some other parts about that.
And it’s so interesting because people talk if you think about uncertainty and disruption all the time and yet there’s this term to describe what is going on in the world. It’s been around since the 1980s and it’s called VUCA – Volatility, Uncertainty, Complexity, and Ambiguity. So really the world is more than just uncertain and disruptive, it’s all of these things. And in Harvard Business Journal and Harvard Business Review, excuse me, Nathan Bennett and G. James Lemoyne, talk about complexity, volatility, ambiguity, and uncertainty. And they frame it around two major questions.
So I want you to think about these questions in terms of your life, your leadership, and running your business. So the first question is how well can you predict the results of your actions? How well can you predict the results of your actions? It’s tough, right? I mean, we all want to feel like we know and understand what’s going to happen next, and yet somethings are really hard to predict.
The second question is how much do you know about the situation? If you’re a business owner you’d like to think that your subject matter expert. That you know and understand what you do, and services you offer, and the products they provide.
And yet if we live in this world with volatility, uncertainty, complexity, and ambiguity, it’s an important question to ask, which is how much do you know about the situation? And how well can you predict the results of your actions?
So these two things are very hard to do. So if you can’t really predict the results of your actions– and this is according to Bennett and Lemoyne again. You’re living in more of a world of ambiguity and uncertainty. If you don’t know much about the situation you’re probably being affected by complexity and ambiguity. If you know more about the situation, you’re probably vexed by things like volatility and uncertainty. If you can predict the results of your actions, you’re probably upset by the idea of; but it’s really complicated, very complex, and volatile. Meaning what works today, isn’t going to work tomorrow, right?
So let’s talk a minute about volatility, uncertainty, complexity, and ambiguity. I mean, what are these things really? I mean, I think volatility is something that we hear about a lot in the news and maybe we talk about it maybe in regards to the economy a lot. So when we talk about how prices change or how the economy is doing well, so then more people are employed but then that makes it harder sometimes to find good employees to work in our businesses. Because we’re not paying may be as much as small business owners, as larger corporations.
So there’s a lot of volatility when it comes to anything that we do. Prices change, economies change, and that will affect potentially how well we can address the problems that we solve with our businesses, and also affect how well we can address our goals. When it comes to uncertainty, it means that we don’t really know what our competitors are doing. I mean, an example of this was how Shopify and MailChimp got into a disagreement, and then it was really uncertain how people using Shopify would resolve their email marketing problem. Right?
It could be that your competitor is working on something, and you’ve heard rumors about a new product, or they’re teasing it out on social media. But until you know what that’s about, you don’t really know how to respond. That’s very uncertain for you. So ambiguity is about relationships, and it’s about the fact that there are unknown unknowns. I really like that quote. It’s like we don’t know what we don’t know. Right? And it’s hard. I mean I have a quote hanging about my desk that says, “Give me ambiguity or give me something else.”
And that’s so true. It’s like well, I don’t know. Give me what I don’t know or give me something else. And either way, it’s very ambiguous. So ambiguity can be what if you’re doing something that nobody else is doing? How do you know how the market is going to react to that? That’s ambiguity. The complexity piece is where I just totally dig on the complexity part. Complexity is more about how everything fits together.
I’ve said before that I’m a systems thinker, so it’s really about how all of the pieces and the parts and the plans and the variables fit together or don’t fit together, and how some things can be really predicted, and how some things can’t. So the example is say you’re doing business in lots of different places, and every single place has different regulations. For example, you have an online business, and you have both services and products, and, for example, in the United States, you may need to charge taxes if people live in one place but not in the other. And you may not have to charge people tax for services, but maybe you do for products.
So then it’s like how do you deal with all of that complexity? Volatility, uncertainty, ambiguity, and complexity. And these things all fit together to let you know how well you can predict the results of your actions and how much do you know about the situation? I’m not telling you all this to freak you out or scare you.
I’m telling you that this is the world that we live in now, and this is the world that we’ll live in tomorrow and after that. My hope is that by talking about this and kind of revealing it to you, it actually gives you some tools for how to handle it. See because now we don’t have to navigate the world in fear. Now we know that everybody else is dealing with the same amount of insecurity, and it means then that we can be the ones creating the new culture.
We can be the ones who are not afraid to be insecure. We can be the ones to go and navigate this world. Because now we know nobody knows what they’re doing. And we should have some security in that. See, that’s how we can be leaders in an uncertain world. When we realize everybody’s in it with us and nobody knows, so you might as well do what you love because everybody’s in the same boat as you.
You might as well follow your goals because everybody is in the same boat as you. So Bob Johansen wrote a book, and it’s called Leaders Make the Future: Ten New Leadership Skills for an Uncertain World. I think he wrote the book because he got trapped in London after a volcano blew and flights couldn’t happen, so he was trying to figure out what he was going to do. I think it’s pretty interesting. I haven’t read this book, but I did find an article about it when I started reading about volatility, uncertainty, complexity, and ambiguity, and how VUCA is an acronym that’s used to talk about this world that we live in. And I love this.
So Bob Johansen writes about how to turn VUCA around, and I think this is so key for those of us who are leaders and small business owners. Volatility leads to vision. Uncertainty yields to understanding. Complexity yields to clarity. And ambiguity yields to agility. So think about it like that. That’s how you turn this around.
You can learn as much as possible, and then you’ve gotta let it go and understand that because you can’t know everything, there’s no reason to be fearful of it. But the things you don’t know about actually gives you space to be more agile. Understanding complexity, meaning who do you know, what are they doing, how are other people solving these problems, how do I communicate with my customers?
Understanding and acknowledging all of that complexity actually allows you to have a lot more clarity because once you know what is going on, at least in as much as you can understand it today, it makes it a lot more clear. Just understanding as much as you can in this uncertain world also lends support to what it is that you’re trying to do.
And volatility leads to vision because vision is about how you make sense of all of this stuff that’s going on in the world around you. So you all have a vision and a mission, and goals to support achieving all of that. And despite the fact that we live in a volatile, uncertain world, you’re moving forward. But the question is, how do you reach your goals?
Because it’s really easy to say, “Well, I’m not going to do anything because everything’s uncertain.” But see, now we’ve given you the power for how to do that. So how do you reach your goals? It also seems like I’m advocating for you to be a “pantster”, meaning everything is so uncertain, I should just fly by the seat of my pants. The answer to that is no, actually, that’s not what I’m saying at all.
I don’t usually quote presidents and generals, but Dwight D. Eisenhower said something that is so true. So the answer for, “How do you reach your goals?” is in what Dwight D. Eisenhower said, which is, “In preparing for battle, I have always found that plans are useless, but planning is indispensable.”
Plans are useless, planning is indispensable. So what does that mean? It means that having detailed plans for exactly what is going to happen That’s useless. The reason why that’s useless is you’re just following the plan without looking on the horizon and taking into consideration what’s actually going on in the world. But planning is actually really important because you’ve taken into consideration some of the things that might be happening on the horizon. And that’s how you reach your goals.
Achieving your goals is comprised of small projects that help you get to where you want to be. When it comes to living in such an uncertain place, that’s when it’s key to consider sprints as opposed to year-long plans.
Meaning what can you achieve in 90 days? And dividing your calendar out into sprints of 90 days and measuring exactly what’s happening so that you know if you’re getting the results that you expected or not. But possibly the most important thing that you can add to your projects is something that I learned in grad school. Dr. Marcus Ingle, who was my mentor and professor calls it structured flexibility.
And it really underscores what Eisenhower was getting at. Structured flexibility means you plan enough to know where you want to be, but you build enough flexibility into every project that you do so that you have room to navigate so that you can handle the complexity and the volatility and the uncertainty and the ambiguity and actually be more agile, actually navigate the world in a way that is most helpful for you.
Structured flexibility and doing all of your projects, executing your projects on shorter timelines. That’s the way to help you reach your goals. That’s the way to help you be less fearful and less insecure. Because what I want for you more than anything is for you to have the security to get out there and follow your dreams and your goals and achieve them.
Because I believe that you are going to make the biggest difference in the world.
Hey ladies. I know you’re working so hard to grow your business. A business that aligns with your vision and your values. A business that supports your lifestyle. And I know it’s been a bumpy ride sometimes. I see it all the time.
Women overspending on shiny objects and magic pills because they’re tired of not seeing results. Business decisions based on short term gains without a critical eye toward the future. Most heartbreaking of all, women who walk away because it’s just too damn hard. The good news is you’re not alone.
You have support all around you. If you’re ready to take joyful action on your biggest business goals, if you need strategy, accountability, and a path to get you exactly where you want to go, let me know because I’m here to support you as a consultant and strategists. You can fill out a quick application to work together at jenmcfarland.com/ready. I have opened up just a few spots over the next couple of months for clients who are ready to make a move. It just takes a few minutes at jenmcfarland.com/ready.
Hi! I’m Jen! I have over 25 years of training, teaching, and executive experience in leadership, strategic project planning, and digital marketing. Today, I am the founder of Women Conquer Business, a boutique consulting firm dedicated to helping women, people of color, and the LGBTQ+ community build sustainable businesses. I’m a frequent guest speaker and trainer. Get access to my free business growth accelerator and hang out with me on my weekly women in business podcast, Women Conquer Business.