4 Steps to Develop Mental Agility & Thrive in Uncertainty

Businesses today know that uncertainty is guaranteed, and that change will continue to be a constant. We live in an age of rapidly evolving technology, increasing globalisation, and vast opportunities for innovation. These factors will continue to impact the working world far into the future - and not always in ways that we can predict. Add the odd global pandemic, and you have a "new normal" that requires us to expect the unexpected and learn to thrive in it.

Most of us aren’t comfortable with uncertainty – we’re hardwired to dislike it. According to research, people experience more feelings of stress when faced with an uncertain outcome than they do when they’re confident of a negative outcome. As soon as we’re unsure what comes next, our instinct is to restore a feeling of certainty as quickly as possible. So, what can we do when our jobs require us to get comfortable with unpredictability?

The concept of mental agility is born out of research into the areas of learning agility, psychological resilience, and innovation, and has become a key skill required to navigate today’s workplace. Mental agility refers to being flexible in responding to events and new situations, while moving between ideas nimbly and quickly. When you’re mentally agile, you’ll be comfortable with complexity. You’ll be effective at thinking on your feet and solving problems, and you’ll grasp new ideas and concepts that help you to find new and innovative solutions. If you can learn to become more comfortable with uncertainty, you’re more likely to find opportunities when facing obstacles and, rather than avoid the situation, find a way to tackle challenges head-on quickly and effectively.

Netflix: A case for agility

An example of a company that has adapted to changing circumstances frequently is Netflix. The business has successfully shifted its business model several times to align with consumer demands and advancements in technology – and grown exponentially because of it.

The company started in 1997 as a mail-order DVD rental company, pivoting to a video streaming platform in 2007. The business developed into a distributor of original content and is today an entire media company that has won Academy Awards.

This willingness to recognise when the business model was at risk of becoming obsolete due to where the world was heading and completely reinventing the customer offering according to the market needs has allowed the company to thrive. It has been able to do this because of a commitment to listening to customers – continuously analysing user data and then using this steer strategy. It will be interesting to watch how agile Netflix’s response will be to changes in audience needs as we start to navigate how we move past living and working through a pandemic.

What can we learn

There are four things we can learn from Netflix about using mental agility to navigate an unpredictable environment effectively:

  1. Accept the situation and focus on the need for change instead of fighting against it.
  2. Take the time to process a changeable landscape. The desire to restore certainty during moments of crisis is what pushes many leaders to make rash decisions instead of sitting with uncertainty until a considered decision can be made.
  3. Get creative about approaching the situation from different angles instead of falling back on tried and tested methods. Brainstorm ideas and seek out diverse opinions to spark innovation.
  4. Focus on a growth mindset – the belief that talents are not innate gifts; rather, new skills can be developed by learning from experience.

Steps to develop mental agility 

At the heart of it, mental agility consists of four components: cognitive flexibility, whereby you can view situations from various perspectives; curious perspective, which means you’re motivated to learn more about areas you have knowledge in, and you want to broaden your knowledge to understand new information; pattern formation, whereby you start to connect the dots between knowledge and ideas you’ve acquired; novel problem solving, which entail creating new solutions to challenges.

Here are four ways you can start to develop your mental agility:

  1. Challenge yourself to find new solutions

When you face a new challenge or the situation around you changes, take some time to consider alternative options rather than act immediately on your first idea about how to respond. You may find that you go with your immediate response. Still, you’re challenging yourself to consider other options rather than automatically responding in the same way you usually would (which can often lead to achieving the same results you’ve always achieved). It can also be helpful to gather perspectives and opinions from others you trust to determine how they would respond.

  1. Learn from past events to direct your future

When facing an unfamiliar situation, take some time to consider how you’ve responded to challenges in the past. What would you do again in the same situation? What would you do differently? This process turns past challenges into learning experiences that will shape how you tackle challenges in the future.

  1. Make continuous improvement part of your routine 

Often, it’s the minor tweaks to our habits that create lasting results over time. Take some time every week to quickly review what’s gone well for you over the last week and what you would like to do differently in the future. This can be a very simple process, which is ideal because you want the review process to be as appealing as possible to ensure your review time doesn’t get bumped in your diary.

  1. Embrace novelty

Whether it’s taking a different route to work, checking out an art gallery or museum you’ve not visited before, or ordering something different from the menu in your favourite restaurant – challenge yourself to try new ways of doing things. Taking a different route to work for example could lead to you seeing a new store that’s opening, and the concept gives you an idea about changing one of your products, or you may come across an office you forgot existed and make a note to yourself to catch up with a connection that works there.


About the author

Gemma Leigh Roberts is a Chartered Psychologist, the founder of coaching platform The Resilience Edge, and author of Mindset Matters: Developing Mental Agility and Resilience to Thrive in Uncertainty, published by Kogan Page, priced at £12.99.

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