Inspire your work

What next? Preparing for Challenge — Aviation Frame – Part 4

Have you ever started work or study in a large building or campus? It can take a while to find your way around – to your workspace or lecture rooms, to the coffee machine. It can take even longer to figure out when it’s a good time to go to the coffee machine!

In unpacking the aviation frame so far, we’ve covered the importance of accepting that things can go wrong, and ways to strengthen our preparation for challenges and responses to them.

The final element – understanding what is within our control and what is not – helps us to make informed choices about where to focus our efforts, which in turn builds confidence in our abilities as we see progress and impact.

Distinguishing between ‘within’ and ‘beyond’ our control is sometimes obvious. A common example is that the weather is beyond our control, but it is within our control to take an umbrella or raincoat when we go out, assuming we own one.

At other times, it’s less obvious. Whether we have control or influence in a situation can be an interplay of many factors, and can change with time and circumstances.

For example, changes in our personal or work circumstances – different team members, role or responsibilities, new skills, health – can change our capacity and ability to control or influence. The external environment or situation may have changed or even be rapidly evolving, like the early stages of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Changes can even remove obstacles or radically change a problem. When Warren and Marshall discovered that peptic ulcer disease was caused by a specific bacteria – not diet and lifestyle factors – the condition became readily treatable with antibiotics. They were awarded the 2005 Nobel Prize for Physiology or Medicine for their work.

After changes, it can take a while to rediscover where we have control or influence, which typically requires us to act, observe and adjust.

Sometimes we can create the change through reframing the problem, getting help or applying new skills or knowledge. This may radically change what is within our control or influence.

Finally, if we are highly capable, accustomed to overcoming challenges, it can be difficult to recognise and accept when there are things we cannot control or influence. Such a realisation can be confronting and even paralysing. (There’s a lot to this, so I may cover it separately in a later newsletter.)

So what can you do to help distinguish between ‘within’ and ‘beyond’ control? One place to start is to scan our environment – to understand the context, potential challenges, their causal factors and impact. We can then work through a process of discerning what is within and beyond control. This newsletter will cover the environment scan.

I had limited understanding of cancer treatments and their effects until I was thrown in the deep end by my own diagnosis. There was plenty of information about the treatments, possible side effects and potential ways to reduce their impact, which gave me a good start. But it wasn’t until I experienced the treatments and tried different approaches over time that I could learn what I could control or influence in my own circumstances.

Gaining a more comprehensive understanding of our environment helps us prepare for and respond during challenge. It equips us to more readily assess the situation, accurately identify and frame the problems and what actions are likely to have greatest impact. It can help us to be realistic about what we can control or influence, and accept what we cannot.

Even for environments we are very familiar with, it is worth occasionally re-scanning significant environments, looking for signs of change and challenging our current understanding and assumptions. This reduces the risk of complacency, expectation bias and surprise.

I built regular environment scans into a research management process I developed for a multinational technology company some years ago. As a practice, it’s been useful in both professional and personal contexts, from industry sector mapping and strategic planning to managing complex chronic health conditions.

I’d like to share with you some tips to support your own environment scanning.

Depending on circumstances, it can be tiring to focus on the external environment, where you will likely encounter many things beyond your control. Timing and scope, mindset and self-care can make a big difference to this experience.

Timing and scope: The aim is to spend only long enough and look only broadly enough to gain the necessary understanding for your circumstances. Define the scope before you start, and review if necessary. It can be useful to spread the environment scan over multiple sessions, with breaks between to recharge. This has the added benefit of allowing you to refine understanding, check or challenge assumptions or take a different perspective.

Mindset: Remember that the purpose of the environment scan is to explore – to gather information to support understanding. As much as possible, suspend thoughts of controlling or shaping the environment at this stage, because they can cloud your view.

Self-care: Caring for yourself – physically, mentally and emotionally – supports your skills during the scan and helps you recharge afterwards. If you’re feeling tired or notice signs of negativity, stop and have a break.

How formally you conduct the environment scan depends on circumstances, available time (such as responding to or preparing for challenge), the significance of likely impacts and your existing familiarity with the environment.

The essential steps of an environment scan:

  1. Gain broad understanding of the environment, and how it impacts on you (positively and negatively). Stay broadly curious at this stage, and be alert for signs of surprise or confusion that may indicate you need to gather more information to update or create new frames. During response, this can be done quickly, such as the AICC practice from the previous newsletter.
  2. Specifically explore impacts. Direct your curiosity to understanding more deeply the causes of problems, factors that influence the scale of impact, and opportunities for problems to be split into smaller problems or reframed. Understand any positive impacts and how they can be accessed or leveraged. Also look for gaps in your knowledge or experience.
  3. Explore potential for control or influence. Of the impacts explored, identify where and how you appear to have control or influence.
  4. Repeat Steps 2–3 as necessary to gain clarity.

After completing the environment scan, list your options for control and influence. Analyse their feasibility and the effort required relative to the potential scale of the impact and importance in your circumstances. Prioritise your options.

Environmental scans can help prioritise your efforts in preparing for and responding to challenge, strengthen your ability to orientate yourself and take action, and provide a basis for understanding that can be refined with experience.

It can be a good idea to start with a small-scale environment scan in an area that represents a minor challenge or a potential opportunity. This will help you limit the scope and maintain your exploration energy. Reflect on your experience.

If you’re interested in more: The story of Warren and Marshall’s discoveries, investigations and challenges to have their work accepted is an inspiring story, as told here. Similarly, this interview with Ian Frazer about his work (alone and with colleague, the late Dr Jian Zhou) which resulted in a vaccine for HPV, the predominant cause of cervical cancer.

Person in red jacket holding map in front of foggy mountains
Photo by ali elliott on Unsplash

Please note: Many people have suffered from mental health issues as a result of the pandemic, including people who have never experienced issues before. This newsletter series is not a substitute for professional mental health support specific to your circumstances. If you have mental health issues, please access professional mental health services before attempting any of the practices in this newsletter series. Links to some Australian organisations and their online resources are below:

Beyond Blue
Black Dog Institute

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