I’m a consultant. I get asked for advice a lot. And, if I’m honest, my most frequent response—to most questions—is, “It depends.”
That’s not because I am deliberately vague, although I’ve been accused of it. It’s not because I’m not certain. And it’s not because I’m fishing for more work.
The reason my most frequent answer to questions is “it depends” is that it happens to be the truth most of the time.
The challenge is that, in many cases, it isn’t an answer that people want to hear. The questions that inspire the answer are often ones that are looking for certainty, clarity or direction. “Should I take on this project?” “How should we proceed in making this change?” “What should our strategy be?” They are questions that are often seeking black-and-white, explicit guidance. But they are not usually questions that—when answered truthfully—have black-and-white answers.
In most instances, there are many answers, many options and many ways to proceed forward. What are you trying to accomplish? What is the real problem that you are trying to solve? Do you want a temporary fix to deal with the immediate situation, or a long-term solution that addresses the underlying reality? How far are you prepared to go, and how much are you willing to change in order to get there? All of those questions, and far more, are implicitly contained within the two perceptually simple words, “It depends.”
We are often deeply uncomfortable and ambivalent with situations that aren’t clear. Uncertainty is, for many people, not a happy place. Implicit in the asking of a question and seeking a hard-edged, precise answer is the desire for direction. For certainty. For guidance. And sometimes, for permission. While we may not admit it very often, even to ourselves, we like being told what to do and being given a clear path to follow. The messy work of forging a new path through unkempt and treacherous terrain is a lot more toil and work than many would like to take. Especially when there is a nice, smooth, well-trodden path that seemingly gets us where we want to go.
I was starkly reminded of this in the most unpleasant way possible yesterday because it happened to me.
I’m currently working with a customer on the development of guidelines for how to better manage their projects. There isn’t a lot of framework and structure to their projects today, so that creates both latitude and challenge. There are other areas and functions in the organization, though, that already have well defined standards. Part of my goal is to have the new guidelines that we create integrate well with the better-defined functions that already do exist today.
One of these functions is in the area of records management. This is an important area for projects, creating the basis for how we record decisions, capture critical information and ultimately learn from the initiatives we deliver. There are relatively well-established expectations for how operational and corporate records are stored. Project records, like the rest of project management as practiced today, is comparatively all over the map.
The desire, then, is to create some clear, helpful and compelling guidelines for how project managers can approach defining, managing and eventually archiving their project records. One that would be more consistent, meaning that future projects have the best possible opportunity of learning from previous ones. If I’m looking for information about a project that we did four years ago, I should be able to know exactly where to look, have a reasonable expectation of what files I will find, and in what specific file I will locate the information that I’m seeking. Nothing like that exists today; in fact, there is a very good likelihood that a comprehensive search for ANY information about a project that was done four years ago is going to come up empty.
In my effort to create some guidelines, I am working with their corporate records specialist. Over the weekend, I sent her an email that I felt was entirely clear, and that asked a very straightforward, logical and readily addressed question. The answer that I got? It began, “It depends.”
That might be predictable, given the set up of this article so far. What was less predictable was my reaction to the email: it made me cranky. I believed I had asked a perfectly straightforward question, and got nothing but ambivalence in response. I had pushed against what I thought was a firm, hard wall, and what I found instead was spongy marshmallow. I wanted a hard answer, and what I got instead was vague and malleable.
It gave me a very interesting empathy for how my clients must feel at times.
What was really fun was when I stepped out of the immediacy of my initial reaction, and reflected on what was going on. I quickly came to appreciate the situation for what it was, but being able to observe the emotional response and where it came from was interesting. I was trying to finish something up, and I had asked what I thought was a simple question with a straightforward answer. I wanted simple and clear, and I got vague and fuzzy. My desire to get some basic information to wrap up what I was working on was being thwarted. My desire to create simple clear guidelines were being complicated—unnecessarily so, in my initial opinion—by ambivalence.
Now, that’s a lot of thinking underlying one emotional response, but I don’t think it’s atypical. When we react strongly to something, there are often real and important root causes driving the response. And a frustration with uncertainty is often a big one.
The consequence is that—when faced with the discomfort of uncertainty and its many nuanced shades of grey—we tend to impose structure. We force situations. We draw hard lines. We try to increase the contrast in an effort to find some edges that we can work with. When we do, in my opinion, we lose an opportunity.
After I got over my initial frustration (and it took embarrassingly longer to do so than I am comfortable admitting) I got to a different place. It wasn’t a place of frustration or annoyance, or even resigned acceptance. It was a place of possibility. It was a place where creativity is possible, where there are options. We can have some fun with this. (Yes, I know I’m talking about having fun and records management in the same breath. I’m a bit of a geek like that. It’s why I do what I do). It means that we can play.
When the answer is “it depends,” it signals that there aren’t hard and fast rules. There are options. There are different possible interpretations and scenarios at work. It signifies that there are opportunities present, and that there are different avenues to explore. It means that you have choices.
Having choices is an incredibly liberating thing. We tend to like hard boundaries, and often we simply have to deal with them. But when they don’t exist, when we can create our own boundaries, we often get uncomfortable. We become accountable for the choices that we make, and there is always a possibility that we won’t make the best one. That what we choose works out less optimally than we might have hoped. Clarity of direction is often falsely appealing simply because it transfers the responsibility for the choice—or the lack of options available—to someone else.
Work past the initial discomfort of engaging with “it depends” and you can get to an extremely flexible place of figuring out what’s most important. You can wrestle with options and evaluate alternatives. You can design a solution that makes the most sense for the situation at hand. It takes longer, requires thought and effort to do, but you have the opportunity to create something that genuinely works well. And even if it doesn’t work well at the outset, you still have control enough to step back, adapt, change and evolve until you find a strategy that does.
Where you get to may be a very different place than you thought you would by the time you are done. It may not be the typical solution. It may not be the one that is normally adopted, that would generally be accepted, or that reflects what others would have done. Flexibility and opportunity may lead to very different conclusions about what is possible than when you work with clarity and certainty. But that is precisely when things get interesting. And it is what is most challenging as well as most exciting about playing with uncertainty.
The fact that I didn’t get a plug-and-play answer to my question means that the deliverable I am working on is going to take a little bit longer to finish. I can’t just drop information into a document, tick the box on a to-do list and say, “Done.” What it does mean is that I get to have some fun and explore opportunities. In doing so, it means that I get to make the solution that I do produce—when I finally get there—the best and most relevant that it can possibly be.
And so, in the coming week or so, I get to sit down with my records management colleague and play with what the options are that “it depends” opens up. We get to map the domain of what is possible, and figure out what options are most relevant. We get to explore the factors that are actually at play, and what the answers genuinely depend on. From there, we’ll find a solution that works, rather than simply imposing a cut-and-dried answer because it was easy.
Eventually, I’ll get to some concrete, black-and-white guidelines. To do so, I need to play in the grey spaces for a while longer. And I’m entirely comfortable with that.