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Janice, chief executive officer of a mid-size software company, was talking with Danae, her chief technology officer.

“What are you hearing from your people?” Janice asked Danae. “Everything I’m hearing from my other officers is widespread uncertainty. Where is the company going? How are we going to respond to this latest demand from Big Customer? What is our target audience for our newest product?”

“That maps with what I’m hearing,” Danae agreed. “The questions my teams are asking, however, are mostly focused on ‘How do I know where to go?’”

“How do they know where to go? In which arena?”

“Well, that’s what maps with what you’re hearing. How do they know where to take their part of the company? How are they going to respond to this latest demand from Big Customer? How do they help define the target audience for our newest product? Also, many questions about determining where they want to take their careers.”

Janice sighed, then rummaged through her computer and pulled up a diagram. “I guess it’s time to pull out my wayfinding speech.”

Janice's process for deciding where to go: First, determine how uncertain you are. If you're reasonably certain where to go, take a tiny step. Otherwise, choose a random direction, then take a tiny step. Now, evaluate what you learned from taking that step. Finally, loop back to the beginning: how uncertain are you?
Janice’s process for deciding where to go

“People always assume I’ve achieved so much success because I have some complex decision-making algorithm,” Janice began. “In truth, it’s just one question and three actions.”

“Where do you start?” Danae asked.

“I’ve found that starting by asking, ‘How uncertain am I?’ usually works best for me. However, a beautiful aspect of this system is that it works brilliantly regardless of where you start.”

“Do you have some examples?”

“Sure. I once had a team who could never agree on a direction. Or anything else, really. So, I’d let my team argue for a while and make a list of every suggestion they put forth. Then, when I decided they’d argued long enough, I’d pick the direction most different from everything they had suggested. Simply declaring we were going in that direction would get them all working together against me. It didn’t usually take them long after that to form a consensus.”

“Do you have an example of starting with taking a step?”

“One time, I had been hiking all day. My supposed-to-be-sunny day had turned out to be nonstop downpours. When I got back to my car, it was mired in mud. I had no idea how to get it free. Backing up just spun the wheels. I couldn’t reposition it. So, I tried going forward. That let my front tires get enough grip so I could keep going forward, slowly turning back towards the road. Before I knew it, I was back on solid ground.”

Danae nodded thoughtfully. “I like it. I’m going to try your four steps. They’re way simpler than the process I’ve been using.”

“Would you like me to send you a copy of the diagram?”

“No, thanks. I believe I have it memorized: Start by determining my level of uncertainty. If I’m not reasonably certain, pick a random direction and take a tiny step; otherwise, move in the direction I believe is right. After I take that step, pause. Evaluate what I learned from taking that step. Then, check in again on my level of uncertainty, restarting the loop.”

“You do sound like you have it down. I look forward to hearing how it works for you. In the meantime, I now know what to discuss in my next all-hands broadcast. Thank you for the idea!”

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