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Mastering Messiness: A Field Guide to Leading Yourself & Others Through Disruptive Change and Accelerated Growth (Part 1)

Mastering Messiness:  A Field Guide to Leading Yourself & Others Through Disruptive Change and Accelerated Growth

In start-ups, fast-growing companies, and environments experiencing disruption, the constant requirement to adapt often leads to messiness. Messiness can take the form of disorganization or a burst of chaos as people scramble to change a process midstream.  It might include an abrupt reversal of a decision without the time to prepare stakeholders or intense, reactionary communication that creates resistance and confusion. And when you factor in the reality that humans are fallible, the longer you sustain an accelerated pace, fatigue sets in, creating a breeding ground for mistakes, misunderstanding, and misalignment. 


In my coaching experience, most people get frustrated by the experience of the messiness and miss the fact the messiness itself is NOT the problem.  The real challenge, and frankly, the critical opportunity, is preparing to embrace and recover from two feelings that arise from messiness: loss of control and a crisis of competence in self and others. Although these feelings are usually temporary, they are problematic for most people. My advice is to accept those feelings, embrace them, and become the Master of them.  


What I am NOT saying is to be disorganized and allow bad behaviors (aka toxic and chaotic) to prevail.  Nor am I advocating for lackadaisical leadership, where you shrug your shoulders when things fall apart or use fear to motivate people to “act” confidently when they are not. Becoming the Master means being intentional and choosing when to prevent, plan for, or allow things to get messy.  

Part 1: The Secret of a Messiness Master


The first step to becoming the Master of anything is understanding the four stages adults go through when learning everything.  In a start-up or fast-growing organization, things are constantly evolving and changing. This is good, but at the same time, it causes predictable challenges for people regardless of their level of buy-in, enthusiasm, and personal resilience. Our ego wants us to feel confident and competent to maintain our sense of self and identity. When you are forced to adapt and change, you will feel off-balance, with moments of insecurity as confidence dips. Having a foundational understanding and acceptance of adult learning theory can help you and others anticipate the “dip” and adopt strategies to recover from it as quickly as possible.  This simple yet often ignored theory will minimize the time and energy spent on people getting stuck or spiraling down/backward because their ego fears this state as permanent.


The four stages of adult learning are:


  1. Unconscious Incompetence: This is the stage where you are unaware of your lack of skill or knowledge in a particular area. You may not even realize that you need to learn something new until you encounter a situation that exposes your ignorance.  This is very common in formative, entrepreneurial, and fast-moving environments.  If people are told, “Just do it,” or “figure it out,” or are constantly making new processes up as they go, they will most likely spend time oblivious to what they don’t know.

  2. Conscious incompetence: This is the stage where you become aware of your lack of skill or knowledge. It can be a frustrating, embarrassing, and humbling experience.  This stage can become a giant mental and emotional sinkhole for anyone who doesn’t tolerate not knowing or having to admit they made a mistake. Adaptability and learning live in this gap!  This is what separates fast-moving, growth-orientated people from everyone else.  They don't allow stage 2 to keep them trapped.  They push through all attempts of their ego to mask or avoid looking incompetent and instead lean into learning to feel competent and confident ASAP. 

  3. Conscious Competence: This is the stage where you begin to actively learn and practice new skills or knowledge. You may need to break down the task into smaller steps, seek out resources or guidance, and practice regularly to improve. 

  4. Unconscious Competence: This is the final stage where the skill or knowledge becomes second nature. You can perform the task effortlessly and without much thought. You are a Master, ready to take on any challenge that comes your way.


Stay tuned for Part 2, coming next week!

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