When it comes to wrestling with uncertainty, planners are pros. Just this past week, with the advent of the Omicron variant, and my current home, Kingston, Ontario reaching the highest case rate of COVID-19 in the country, due to Omicron spread, I was reminded about the importance of being nimble to navigate the everchanging landscape. However, moving into another phase of volatility and uncertainty, this time, with the “Omicron effect,” will challenge even those of us who are skilled at managing and designing systems through change. Just when we came close to emerging out of an economic downturn this fall, especially the ‘she-cession,’ to use the term coined by Atkinson Fellow Armine Yalnizyan, we should be bracing ourselves for more shifts in our economic, labour market, and social service systems. How then does one manage to take two steps forward without taking three steps back? As I look back at this past year of work at Viswali Consulting, these five practices helped to ground our collaborative work in managing uncertainty in systems change:

1. Showing empathy and kindness toward myself and others.

Showing empathy and kindness for others is easier when you practice it for yourself too. Behavioural change requires both self-practice and community practice. This reminds me that values can be practiced best when you start with yourself and are proven when there is a connection between the values and the goals set up with others.

2. Working with the information available in the present moment and grounding knowledge in research and experience.

With changes in the terrain of all areas in planning, change management, and society, it has been important to focus on the information that is available in the moment and to ground what I know in sound research as well as meeting people where they are at. Drawing from the best evidence available, using skills of discernment, and verifying and confirming information developmentally, were crucial to my practice.

3. Collaborating and drawing from diverse abilities to implement strategic foresight.

Collaborating with teams with diverse abilities, expertise, and experiences made it easier to plan and troubleshoot how to address changing parameters of complex problems and multiple projects, especially when it came to examining potential scenarios and outcomes. Practicing strategic foresight in a collaborative way, acknowledged where there were aspects to a project that were difficult to predict and were only partially visible at a given moment; it enabled us to ask key questions and to name strategies, which ultimately enhanced the development of our strategic plans.

4. Building agility to experiment, adapt, and implement alternatives.

Being agile and nimble is fundamental for most successful small businesses even in the best of times, but it was crucial during the economic volatility of the past 20 months, and I expect this will be the case moving into 2022. I enjoyed working with my clients who embraced the importance of being creative in our problem solving and adapted our designs, especially when project parameters had to change (i.e., shifts in timelines, competing demands facing team members; reallocation of budgets) and when expectations of constituents were heightened due to moral distress and societal overwhelm during the global pandemic.

5. Reframing problems, refocusing, and returning to what is most important.

In our efforts to design more inclusive practices, by starting with empathy, and by acknowledging that each person owns their individual experiences and values, our project team members took the time to listen to one another and to acknowledge what we did not know. By staying open to reframing problems from the standpoint of a person’s experience, cultural background, and observations, sometimes made in situ, we fostered an openness to reframe problems, refocus priorities, design new research, create added resources, and then to return to what brought us together in the first place.

As we move into 2022, I’m confident that these practices will continue to serve us well. I expect that building agility will be especially crucial as public trust continues to wax and wane with economic and public health measures; however, opportunities to effect change and to practice empathy will only grow.

Collage by Leela Viswanathan

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