What I Can Control

In my experience as a business operations leader, there were times when I had control over something, and other times when I had the belief or impression that I had control, and many times I wished that I had control because I didn’t.


The usual sign of lack or loss of control was a “surprise”. Management and my internal customers emphatically didn’t like “surprises”.

I spent months as a member of a team redesigning cross-company consolidated business practices and organization, and then surprise! the company was sold and the design was dropped. The team had no foreknowledge of the sale. Even if someone knew the discussion about selling was going on, would it have made sense to stop the work? What if the sale fell through? If the company hadn’t been sold, it probably made sense to implement the changes. What I could control in this case was how I felt about design effort being dropped. The decision to drop the design was not mine, and I know the team did a great job. I now consider the work an accomplishment, and we all learned a lot.

Just hours before implementing a new PBX, surprise! the Big Phone Company missed its provisioning commitments. We were delayed by months by the time the issues were worked out. Management and co-workers were NOT happy. I thought my implementation planning, including getting a commitment from the phone company, was sufficient to be in control. Looking back, it’s easy (now) to see I was inexperienced in working with the phone company. What I could have controlled was the care I gave to getting and understanding their commitments, and accepting what they meant; I could have prepared contingencies, or at least set better expectations for the end users.

I can plan.

A plan (including a budget) is a tool that lets me justify and prepare for a project or an ongoing business process. It’s also a tool that lets me compare what actually happens to what was originally planned, so that I can make adjustments or choose what to do next, and can learn from the experience.

I can plan, to a reasonable degree, for the things that I want to happen and might happen. I can do business plans and project plans and schedules and milestones and budgets and contingency plans, and get contracts and agreements and sponsors, and have meetings and monitor activity and communicate, all to the degree that’s right for the opportunity.

Whew. I can also control the amount of effort I put into planning. Sometimes I choose to do “notes on a napkin” or perhaps just do a simple document and spreadsheet. Sometimes I choose a formal planning methodology and tools. I can also control the effort I give to monitoring/tracking what actually happens, and based on the differences between planned and actual activity and results, make choices.

Other things I can do.

Usually plans or processes that I own includes things that others must do. What I can’t control is whether or how well those things get done.

I can facilitate a structure and process that enables, encourages, and supports choices for everyone involved, including me. Ideally, the choice is conscious: informed, accepting, trusting, etc. The choice made could be to NOT to participate in the project or process, which I would rather know sooner than later, for all involved, so someone can be found who chooses to participate.

I can encourage/support/mentor/coach others to be their best.

I can lead by example. People notice this; in fact, people are drawn to my higher energy. I can demonstrate taking responsibility. I can go for the win that’s not about someone else losing. I can choose to serve. I can look for opportunities instead of problems. I can embrace the big picture. I can listen, understand, accept, respect, find common ground, see things a different way, discover options and choices, commit, lead, and be engaged.

And, yes, I can “force” an employee to do their job or threaten to take legal action on a service provider for breach of contract. But in my experience, those actions alone haven’t gotten the work done, and the quality of the work wasn’t necessarily great if someone was unhappy or disagreed with it. What if they decide to resign, or not renew their contract, either now or later? It’s a lot of work to replace a person or business partner. It’s the longer way around to getting something done, not near what I would choose if I wanted to feel “in control”.

Other people must choose, too.

However hard I work at planning and support and encouragement, and contracting, etc., other people still must make their choices. A person or organization assigned to so something must choose to do it (consciously or not), and must then do it. They also need to choose how well to do it, including quality and schedule. I can’t make those choices for them. I find that wishing this is not true neither makes it true, nor keeps the surprises from happening. Accepting that I am not really in control feels more real.

Other things just happen.

Even when I’ve done and others directly connected have done their part, other things happen.

I am not (no one is) in control of the weather, the traffic, the electric power grid, sun spots, earthquakes, miracles, etc. Granted, some of these things may have significant enough potential for me to develop contingency plans, a form of “in control” response. But some do not. Some are unknown to me. Unexpected stuff just happens that impacts the things that are in my plan, process, or responsibility. Sometimes things just get overlooked or ignored, for whatever the reason.

No one expected the space shuttle Challenger disaster, although I’m sure there were contingency plans. When it happened, I’m sure even NASA leadership experienced a full range of emotions, and yet most chose to step into professional responses.

I can respond.

When everything goes as expected, sometimes I feel accomplished and celebrate that this effort that was “under my control” was successful. But I’m learning that it feels more authentic to feel accomplished about the result knowing that I did my part the best I could, and accepting and acknowledging that the other people and organizations involved all did their best, and that the Universe didn’t deliver any unplanned surprises.

When something slips or careens “out of my control” I can experience a range and degrees of anger, disappointment, and victimization (to name a few). When I begin to recognize that I can find a way to respond in the service of those affected, or I can find new opportunities in the situation, then I recognize I am back in the realm of things I can choose, and I’m back in control.

My safety net.

There is a choice available to me, whatever happens. Call it my “in control safety net”:

I can learn.

“While we may not be able to control all that happens to us, we can control what happens inside us.” - Benjamin Franklin
“We cannot direct the wind but we can adjust the sails.” - Unknown Source