We have a saying in my family for when life gets snarly: “keep your knees bent.” It’s a nod both to our powerlessness over the chaotic forces of life and also to the power of response-ability. You might not be able to dictate what life throws at you, but you can be vigilant and ready to respond to what comes your way. The image I always have in my mind is that of a surfer on his board, knees bent, curling under a wave. Of course, you can get knocked over just as easily with your knees bent if you aren’t paying attention. The truly skilled “surfer” leverages three skills:
- Awareness – scanning the environment. Awareness involves looking for stimuli in the environment that signal the need to make a change – whether that is something in the physical environment (e.g., a cresting wave), something in the business environment (e.g., competitor action), or the actions of another person (e.g., nonverbal reactions to something you said). Being aware requires you to look up and around corners, not just at what is in front of you. Awareness involves the ability to shift your perspective to take in the situation in a new light.
- Openness – willingness to change course. Openness means not just doing the same thing because it is comfortable to you, but being willing to embrace new strategies and directions. Openness asks that you be willing to consider that your first impulse may not be the right one, that others may have equally good if not better ideas, and that sometimes the path to the goal isn’t direct or obvious.
- Flexibility – “range of motion” or the ability to do something different. Flexibility builds on awareness and openness and demands that we develop the capacity to execute new behaviors. Always faking left and going right isn’t going to work as a long-term strategy; trying to improve margins by cutting costs can only work for so long. Whereas openness is a mindset, flexibility is a quality of action. It requires having available a diverse skill set so that you can choose and successfully execute a different course.
Being response-able means being able to quickly and repeatedly make course-corrections in the face of evolving changes. We have to become expert at rapidly triangulating between self-awareness, external feedback, and our ideal outcome. What does the situation demand? What capabilities are you bringing to the table? What solutions are possible? What is the next iteration? Life is never going to proceed in an orderly fashion to the finish line as you have conceived it. There will be game-changing innovations, market crashes, job cuts, shifting demographics – and the “winners” will be those who adroitly dodge and weave. The real pros are those who can take the momentum from a blow and turn it into a positive – if you are truly aware, open, and flexible, you will also see the opportunities and gifts latent in the challenges you face. Like surfing, it just takes practice.