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NEWS | Oct. 8, 2013

Delicious ambiguity

By Col. Darren Hartford 437th Airlift Wing commander

"The best laid schemes of Mice and Men oft go awry..." Robert Burns

"Life is about not knowing, having to change, taking the moment and making the best of it without knowing what's going to happen next. Delicious Ambiguity" -- Gilda Radner

Like most of you, I have an established routine in the morning as I get ready for work, to include what route I drive to my office. Not long ago, the road I drove every day out of my neighborhood was closed and remained so for several weeks. If you had heard my complaints as well as those of my neighbors, you would have thought life was never going to be the same. Other people had changed our routines and did not ask for our opinion. We had no say in or control of the matter. It was an outrage!

As I write this, the US Government is going into the second week of "shutdown." Since October 1st, it seems every day I get a new piece of guidance on what the shutdown means for our Airmen. I learn what TDY's are or are not allowed, what we can or cannot spend money on, who is or isn't going to get paid and who is or isn't going to be 'furloughed' (as of this writing all civilian and military Airmen at the local level will be working and getting paid). The uncertainty of the situation is causing a lot of angst and rightfully so. Uncertainty and change, in any facet of life, but especially when it comes to our finances and livelihood, are upsetting.

Certainty in my knowledge of the pattern of events gives me comfort. A change to my routine or to what I view as 'normal' quickly makes me uncomfortable. It does not take long for me to establish a comfort zone. If you have ever sat in a classroom for a day and had someone sit in 'your seat' following a break, then you have an idea of how disruptive and uncomfortable dealing with change can be. Personally, I like to know what is coming up in the future and plan accordingly. Tell me the rules of the game and I will happily build my plans on how to proceed.

Some of our routines become bedrock truths: The sun is going to rise in the east and the government is going to pay me every two weeks. When events beyond our control put those ground truths in flux, it causes us to worry and lose our focus on whatever we had planned. It can be very easy to spend our days wringing our hands about what the future holds and hope things will return to normal. But that is not productive. There are things we can control and things we can't; discerning between the two helps us deal with uncertainty. There are also things you can do both personally, as well as organizationally, to better adapt and deal with uncertain times.

I am reminded of a story of two men who built houses. One did not care about the quality of the foundation before he built his home. When a strong wind and rain storm came, the house blew down. The other man took his time on the foundation and made sure his home was solid. When the winds and rain came, his home was safe and secure. Like the second man in this tale, if you have a strong personal foundation you can better weather the storms of life.

The Comprehensive Airman Fitness (CAF) program helps us build strong personal foundations. As we develop our mental, physical, social and spiritual pillars we become more adapt at dealing with the stress that uncertainty causes as well as develop coping mechanisms. It can also equip us to find opportunities in the changing environment. Additionally, staying true to the Air Force core values of integrity, service and excellence will help guide our actions in new and changing environments and allow us stay true to ourselves and to the standards our profession demands of us.

The Air Force has a long history of accepting and dealing with change. One can make the argument that the early Airpower advocates' ability to see how technology had changed the battlefield and their ability to not only adapt, but exploit the new reality led to the creation of our service. In the latest Air Force vision statement it says, "Airmen, using their unique perspective, have long stood for and pioneered innovative ways to win the fight while shaping the future." Indeed, adaptation to change is a part of our Air Force culture.

When our organizations are dealing with fiscal and manpower unknowns, focusing on what our mission is, at the Air Force, MAJCOM, Wing, or even the flight level, will shape our everyday actions. Staying focused on completing that mission and doing our jobs as best and as safely as we can, takes some of the uncertainty out of our day. When the changing environment puts our ability to complete our mission at risk, it can also drive us to new heights as we examine the how's and why's of what we do, in order to find more efficient and effective ways to do our mission. In other words, change and uncertainty can drive innovation.

Leaders at all levels need to identify those items that don't contribute to safe mission accomplishment in either the short or long term. Sometimes we can stop doing something for a little while and its okay (delaying an oil change in your car) but eventually things break down (what happens when you never change the oil in your car). Leaders have to know the difference between those short and long term risks and decide what needs to be done to make the mission happen or even change how the mission happens. As the vision document says, "Every Airman should constantly look for smarter ways to do business. The person closest to the problem is often the one with the best solution. Leaders should empower Airmen to think creatively, find new solutions, and make decisions. Airmen at all levels must have the courage to take risks and learn from mistakes as we pursue a stronger Air Force."

There are many ways to deal with change and uncertainty, in my opinion it comes down to your and your organization's attitude. Gilda Radner was one of the original comedienne's on the TV Show, Saturday Night Live. In 1989, she passed away following a long fight with cancer. Her quote above conveys her attitude and mental ability to adapt to her uncertain future. Are you personally equipped and prepared to handle the stress that uncertainty causes? Is your organization focused on its mission? Are you ready to challenge the 'old way of doing business' to find a more efficient and more effective method of getting the mission done? I find that it is possible to adapt to uncertainty or a changing world just like it is possible to adapt to a new route to work. If you keep looking for those new routes, and new challenges, it can keep your perspective fresh and give you the ability to spot new opportunities. Uncertainty is not comfortable, but we can get through it and if we handle it well, we will be a better Air Force for it.