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A favorite phrase of the late actress Nina Foch, who taught Cinematic Arts at UCLA for over 40 years, was idiosyncratic contrapuntal juxtaposition. What she meant was that what really happens is often the opposite of what you might think would happen. She was explaining to her students that the way they might have to play a scene could be quite different than the way they had planned.

That is sometimes the way it is in our personal life, and that is also the way it can be in the business world. Our best plans, on which we may have spent countless hours, can turn out to be useless because the environment, when we actually get there, has changed in some unanticipated way.

A few suggestions for managers:

1. Plan for the unexpected. After developing business strategies which you are confident will be appropriate for what lies ahead, develop contingency plans which will cover directly opposite situations. All too often, we convince ourselves that we can predict the future and then are shocked and unprepared for what really happens. Do not allow yourself to become emotionally committed to only one or two similar plans of action. Overconfidence can kill a company and a career.

2. Stimulate free-wheeling discourse and opposing views in training sessions. One or two employees with forceful personalities and strong opinions can cut off discussion of plausible situations and solutions. Dont allow this to happen; the resulting group think can be disastrous. Point out that there is often more than one solution to a problem, and that the quietest member of the group may have an idea worth considering.

3. Make sure that you and the members of your team are ready to be flexible and innovative when unexpected events occur. Subordinates need to know how you would want them to act, even if there has never been a discussion of that particular dilemma. Sometimes unexpected events come up rapidly and action must be taken quickly. There may be no time for a lengthy discussion with peers or for a call to the boss for advice. An employees observation of you, and your daily example as a leader, will help him or her understand what you would think should be done.

4. Encourage the use of concepts, not hard data alone, to attain quick solutions in problem solving. You need workers who are flexible and who can think. They should be trained to ask themselves meaningful questions in a crisis: Why has this occurred? What is different about it? Will any of the old solutions work? What might be the most beneficial, or the least harmful solution, even if weve never tried it before? Old, overly detailed solutions can be drastically incorrect in an unexpected environment.

5. And finally, go out of your way to encourage the use of common sense in unforeseen situations. This idea might sound simplistic, but as Voltaire once said, Common sense is not so common.

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