Monday, January 14, 2013

The Messy Unknown

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This post got me thinking about the messy unknown, a term coined by Tom and David Kelley to describe the place outside your comfort zone. In the messy unknown, they say elsewhere, you have to deal with unexpected findings, with uncertainty, and with irrational people who say things you don't want to hear. But you must venture into this place, because in the messy unknown you also find insights and creative breakthroughs.

One of the things I've come to understand is the messy unknown doesn't just exist outside your organization. A lot of the writing the Kelleys do on the messy unknown focuses on the external world of your customer, and about how you need to venture forth into it, opening yourself up to new information and discovery. They're right, of course, but the messy unknown exists inside your organization as well.

A colleague of mine is restructuring her organization. Over coffee the other day, she told me about how the current structure was no longer contributing to their growth, and about how the new structure--which was being unveiled later that day--would in many ways be a grand experiment. Lines of reporting and areas of responsibility would change, but how the people in the organization would adapt, and what new communication systems they would need to build to make the new structure work, would have to be invented after the reshuffling was done. There was no way to set those up in advance, to anticipate with precision what those needs would be.

That's the messy unknown, too. She would need to venture forth into the world of her staff members, and keep herself open to new information and discovery about their needs. Indeed, she needed to do some of that before even suggesting the changes she was making if she hoped her reorganization would have any chance of success.

And there is at least one other place that the messy unknown exists--inside your own head. Whether it's the external focus of the Kelleys or the internal focus on my colleague, any journey into the messy unknown must begin with taming the fears that we conjure up in our own minds. There, the uncertainty can sometimes overwhelm you, especially when you realize that it is you and only you that can venture into this unknown, and that there is never any guarantee that you will find anything worthwhile.

Fashioning success out of the chaos that seemingly surrounds us is one of the most challenging tasks any leader will ever face. It's daunting, and it's not surprising that many are too intimidated by their fear to even attempt it. But turning fear into curiosity--for you and for the people who follow you--is one of the most important things any leader can do.

This post written by Eric Lanke, an association executive, blogger and author. For more information, visit, follow him on Twitter @ericlanke or contact him at


  1. Love the post, but I've always wondered: "Just what is it that we are so afraid of?"

    Though we've convinced ourselves otherwise, much of life is messy and unknown. Charting our path through all of that is what it means to be human in my book.

    1. That's a great attitude to have, Jeffrey, and if more of our organizations were as human as we are, it would likely be more common.