When inflection points haunt you

We've all come face-to-face with inflection points in our professional lives and our personal relationships too. In these moments it is clear we must address a deep problem or make difficult choices; the current trajectory must change. But the problem is most of us run away from inflection points just when we need to face them. During these topsy-turvy times you've probably encountered some wicked inflection points that are causing sleepless nights and much consternation. How you deal with these moments will determine your effectiveness and success. In just the past few weeks I've seen a number of inflection points:

*At a board retreat, participants who had traveled from across the nation, and some from around the globe, became agitated about the direction of an afternoon strategy discussion, and brought it to a head by pointedly saying that much of the meeting was a waste of their time. What to do, and was all lost?

*Many organizations, including my own, face budgetary decisions as a result of the economic downturn. Our instinct can be to turn inward and try to squeeze every last nickel from our budgets, but is that the right way to proceed?

*In civic engagement efforts there is often a fear of conflict,because it's uncivil, seemingly unproductive, and uncomfortable. But where does this leave us since most issues people care about are emotional?

Inflection points are inherently dramatic. At each inflection point, people reach a critical juncture, when their actions will determine whether they'll move ahead, be derailed, or simply get stuck. If people can leverage the energy of the inflection point, they can propel themselves forward -- indeed, make a leap.

But too often we try to go around inflection points, which leave the underlying issues unresolved. We seek to diffuse them, only to be haunted by the issues at a later time. In some cases, we try to ignore inflection points, hoping they'll go away.

My own experience is that we must run into an inflection point, bringing a desire to engage it, own it, and work it. This takes an undying willingness to see reality for what it is -- not to try to reframe or recast it, or deny it, or wish it was different. For inflection points to propel us forward, we must first step forward, and then we must open our eyes and be willing to see what exists before us. This is far from easy.

We must also "name" the inflection point, and its underlying issues, to de-mystify them, so we no longer fear them. Indeed, inflection points are riddled with dissonance, uncertainty, and ambiguity. Only by putting these on the table, and squarely engaging them, can you shape a path that propels you forward.

So what about the board retreat? By placing the inflection point on the table, people no longer believed they had to let the discussion derail their meeting; instead, they could see that the off-putting discussion had actually led them to deepen their commitment to their strategic direction. In the case of organizational budget cuts, we can choose to look inward, or use this moment to look outward and test the relevance and significance of what we do. In civic engagement, we can smooth over conflict, perhaps short-circuiting hard issues we must address, or seek to uncover the real tension that is at the heart of every significant conversation.

Inflection points offer us a choice. We can run from them, avoid them, or seek to diffuse them. Sometimes that will work. But at important moments we must take a different path: to run into inflection points.