The 5 Gifts of Uncertainty

The 5 Gifts of Uncertainty

“How are you doing?  How are you handling all this?”

It seems like 90% of conversations these days start with those two sentences.  We ask out of genuine concern and also out of a need to commiserate, to share our experiences, and to find someone that understands.

The connection these questions create is just one of the Gifts of Uncertainty that have been given to us by the pandemic.

Yes, I know that the idea of uncertainty, especially in big things like our lives and businesses, being a gift is bizarre.  When one of my friends first suggested the idea, I rolled my eyes pretty hard and then checked to make sure I was talk to my smart sarcastic fellow business owner and not the Dali Lama.

But as I thought about it more, started looking for “gifts” in the news and listening for them in conversations with friends and clients, I realized how wise my friend truly was.

Faced with levels of uncertainty we’ve never before experienced, people and businesses are doing things they’ve never imagined having to do and, as a result, are discovering skills and abilities they never knew they had.  These are the Gifts of Uncertainty

  1. Necessity of offering a vision – When we’re facing or doing something new, we don’t have all the answers. But we don’t need all the answers to take action.  The people emerging as leaders, in both the political and business realms, are the ones acknowledging this reality by sharing what they do know, offering a vision for the future, laying out a process to achieve it, and admitting the unknowns and the variables that will affect both the plan and the outcome.
  2. Freedom to experiment – As governments ordered businesses like restaurants to close and social distancing made it nearly impossible for other businesses to continue operating, business owners were suddenly faced with a tough choice – stop operations completely or find new ways to continue to serve. Restaurants began to offer carry out and delivery.  Bookstores, like Powell’s in Portland OR and Northshire Bookstore in Manchester VT, also got into curbside pick-up and delivery game.  Even dentists and orthodontists began to offer virtual visits through services like Wally Health and Orthodontic Screening Kit, respectively.
  3. Ability to change – Businesses are discovering that they can move quickly, change rapidly, and use existing capabilities to produce entirely new products. Nike and HP are producing face shields. Zara and Prada are producing face masks. Fanatics, makers of MLB uniforms, and Ford are producing gowns.  GM and Dyson are gearing up to produce ventilators. And seemingly every alcohol company is making hand sanitizer.  Months ago, all of these companies were in very different businesses and likely never imagined that they could or would pivot to producing products for the healthcare sector.  But they did pivot.
  4. Power of Relationships – Social distancing and self-isolation are bringing into sharp relief the importance of human connection and the power of relationships. The shift to virtual meetups like happy hours, coffees, and lunches is causing us to be thoughtful about who we spend time with rather than defaulting to whoever is nearby.  We are shifting to seeking connection with others rather than simply racking up as many LinkedIn Connections, Facebook friends, or Instagram followers as possible.  Even companies are realizing the powerful difference between relationships and subscribers as people unsubscribed en mass to the “How we’re dealing with COVID-19 emails” they received from every company with which they had ever provided their information.
  5. Business benefit of doing the right thing – In a perfect world, businesses that consistently operate ethically, fairly, and with the best interests of ALL their stakeholders (not just shareholders) in mind, would be rewarded. We are certainly not in a perfect world, but some businesses are doing the “right thing” and rea being rewarded.  Companies like Target are offering high-risk employees like seniors pregnant women, and those with compromised immune systems 30-days of paid leave.  CVS and Comcast are paying store employees extra in the form of one-time bonuses or percent increases on hourly wages.  Sweetgreen and AllBirds are donating food and shoes, respectively, to healthcare workers.  On the other hand, businesses that try to leverage the pandemic to boost their bottom lines are being taken to task.  Rothy’s, the popular shoe brand, announced on April 13 that they would shift one-third of their production capacity to making “disposable, non-medical masks to workers on the front line” and would donate five face masks for every item purchased.  Less than 12 hours later, they issued an apology for their “mis-step,” withdrew their purchase-to-donate program, and announced a bulk donation of 100,000 non-medical masks.

Before the pandemic, many of these things seemed impossibly hard, even theoretical.  In the midst of uncertainty, though, these each of these things became practical, even necessary.  As a result, in a few short weeks, we’ve proven to ourselves that we can do what we spent years saying we could not.

These are gifts to be cherished, remembered and used when the uncertainty, inevitably, fades.

Originally published on Mat 19, 2020 on

Mom: Innovation’s OG

Mom: Innovation’s OG

My Mom was a nursery-school teacher. It was more than her profession, it was her gift. Long after my sister and I were grown and out of the house, my mom chose to spend her days with 4-year olds, teaching them everything from the ABCs to how to use the WC.

Like all moms, she was an innovator. She was constantly creating something different that had impact. Admittedly, sometimes “different” was just weird and “impact” wasn’t always ideal, but it’s only just recently that I’ve realized how much my mom (probably accidentally) role-modeled the traits of a world-class innovator.

The genius of stealth prototyping

In an effort to save a bit of money, I spent the summer before business school living with my parents. One day, while folding the laundry (it took less than 20 minutes!), I found one of my Dad’s white athletic tube socks. But it wasn’t like the other white athletic tube socks. This one had three circles drawn on the bottom of it in what appeared to be black Sharpie.

“Mom, what’s up with this sock?”

“Oh, I needed a ghost puppet for school so I just used one of your dad’s socks.”

When my dad got home from work, I showed him the sock and asked if he had noticed the black circles on the foot. He had not.

White tube sock with a face drawn on the bottom

Ghost Puppet Prototype

Let me be very clear about what happened here:

  1. In OCTOBER, my mom needed a ghost puppet for a Halloween lesson at nursery school
  2. In OCTOBER, she took ONE of my dad’s socks and drew a “face” on it. Then, after using it as a puppet, threw it in the wash, refolded it with its mate, and put it back in my dad’s sock drawer
  3. In JULY, my dad put on a pair of white tube socks (probably to go golfing) without realizing that one of them had a face on it

Proof that if you use what you’ve got to do what you need to do, management will be none the wiser.

The infectious nature of optimism

My Mom was raised by a Marine and while she went easier on us on a day-to-day basis, her standards were Marine-high when it came to weekend chores and Spring Cleaning. For example, when my sister’s boyfriend (now husband) came to visit for the first time, my Mom had me spend several hours laying on my stomach with a pair of tiny sewing scissors, trimming the entry-way rug to ensure all of its fibers were exactly the same length.

Every Saturday when we were growing up, immediately after rattling off a long list of chores to a chorus of groans and eye rolls, Mom would reassure us that “If we all work together, it will only take 20 minutes.”

We always knew it would take infinitely longer than 20 minutes. There is no way four people can clean an entire house up to Marine code standards in 20 minutes. It’s simply not possible. But despite this fact, we always hoped that this time, this time, it would only take 20 minutes.

It never took only 20 minutes. Never. But we always hoped it would.

The life-changing power of empathy

Children were drawn to my Mom. She was like the Pied Piper. Whenever we were in public, children would gravitate to her, walk beside her, wave to her. She connected with them in a way that defied explanation. So, when she passed away suddenly, it was not surprising that there were nearly as many children at her wake as there were adults.

But it was one little girl who passed on to me my mom’s final lesson.

As my dad, sister, and I shook hands, hugged, and thanked people for coming, I noticed a young girl, maybe 6 or 8 years old, standing along a wall sobbing uncontrollably. In a week filled with inconsolable people, she was the most inconsolable I’d seen. So I stepped out of line to talk to her.

I knelt in front of her and asked what was wrong (yes, it’s a stupid question but cut me some slack, I definitely did not inherit my mom’s “good with kids” gene).

“Your mom changed my life. When I was in her class, I didn’t have any friends and my parents were going to pull me out of school. But your mom heard me singing one day and she came over to sing with me. We sang together every day after that. She gave me to confidence to talk to the other kids. And now I’m still in school and I have friends and I even sing in the choir.”

My mom couldn’t sing. She was a terrible singer and she knew it (side note: I did inherit my mom’s “can’t carry a tune in a bucket” gene). But she saw a little girl in need of a friend so instead of worrying about how silly she would sound, she joined that little girl in singing a song. And, in doing so, changed a little girl’s life.

Family photo at Fenway Park

Our last family photo — Fenway Park, 2005, Indians vs. Red Sox

To all the Moms in my life and all the Moms in yours, Happy Mother’s Day. Thank you for all that you have done for us and taught us. You are many many things, brilliant world-class innovation OGs is just one.