Working with uncertainty

There’s a satisfaction in ordering the disordered, making sense of the scattered.

We’re halfway through the first of our six-month OnPurpose placements, and before breaking up for Christmas we reviewed what each of us found challenging / interesting in our work.

Our cohort of 18 are a fairly diverse bunch (backgrounds in law, finance, consulting, life sciences, business development, fundraising, etc.). And our current workplaces range from tiny to global, from start-ups to household names, from pushing profit to donor-driven – organisations across the whole spectrum or even on the edges of social enterprise. Drawing general conclusions from our experiences, then, might be a stretch….  I can’t resist trying, though. Here’s the summary.

What we’ve found engaging:

  • The people we work with: They’re inspiring, motivated, professional, talented… As in any sector, working with good people makes a huge difference.
  • The value of the work being done: Both by the organisation (i.e. we see that it has an effect) and by our role (seeing that our input is important; being able to bring useful skills or take responsibility for a particular project; or e.g. managing to connect with the right people to bring about change).
  • Learning new things: Both new subject matter, and new ways of working. One of the characteristics OnPurpose looks for in recruiting associates is adaptability and taking opportunities to learn new things, so it’s perhaps unsurprising that this is a big positive.

What we’ve found difficult:

  • Adjusting to a different working culture: Most of us have shifted sector, and may also be in much smaller (or in my case, much bigger) organisations, with quite different targets. Many of us are working to different timeframes, with less concrete deadlines, or are having to be more flexible in our planning, or are more influenced by external policy changes than before.
  • Lack of clarity: Decision-making processes, team roles and responsibilities, and organisational objectives can be ambiguous, in flux, or subject to change. It can be hard to know what we’re working towards and how to get there.
  • Finding time and space to work on the bigger picture: OnPurpose expects us to think strategically and long-term, not just slot in on an operational level. That can be challenging – either we don’t have the authority, or the time, or the teams we’re with are underresourced or reluctant to look too far beyond the immediate.

Boiling it down further, what we and these organisations are trying to do, I suppose, is make stuff happen despite uncertainty. (Which applies to any kind of leadership role – although, as we were told in a recent session on the topic, emerging social enterprises still trying to find their niche and prove their impact are likely going through more ambiguity than other organisations.) And that makes for confusing, frustrating, exciting times.

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