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The Fast Company Executive Board is a private, fee-based network of influential leaders, experts, executives, and entrepreneurs who share their insights with our audience.

To deal with unexpected challenges, connect your Catalysts

You need to identify your Catalysts before crises and connect them to each other so they can create change, quickly.

To deal with unexpected challenges, connect your Catalysts
[fizkes / Adobe Stock]

Global pandemics. Labor shortages. Supply chain issues. Increasing competition. Whatever your business and no matter your industry, one thing remains constant: unexpected challenges.

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More and more, we are living in a volatile, uncertain, complex, and ambiguous (VUCA) world. You never know when or where the next big disruption will hit you. To survive, you must be able to adapt quickly and effectively.

Many people resist change, clinging to what is familiar and comfortable. However, there is a subset of the population that actually thrives in volatility, uncertainty, complexity, and ambiguity. We call these individuals Catalysts.

In my definition, Catalysts are innovators who can’t stop taking in information, connecting dots, and changing the world, even when the world hasn’t asked for it. They are the key to driving change in your business so that you can adapt to the unexpected. How successful they are depends on your ability to connect them—to each other, to you, and to the problems you want them to solve.

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WHO ARE YOUR CATALYSTS, AND WHERE ARE THEY?

Your Catalysts are ready-built for a VUCA environment, but to do what they do best, they must be able to react immediately. If you wait until a crisis hits, it will be too late. You need to identify your Catalysts before crises and connect them to each other so they can create change, quickly.

So how do you identify your Catalysts? I find that Catalysts share four traits. They:

1. Absorb and process lots of data at lightning speed, often subconsciously.

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2. See possibilities and connect the dots in the data to create a clear vision of the future.

3. Feel an inherent drive toward action—a need to turn their vision into reality.

4. Have an experimentation mindset—constantly iterating, pivoting, and refining their vision.

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If you identify your Catalysts now, you will be able to tap them at a moment’s notice when they’re needed. What’s more, you can position them strategically in your company. Catalysts’ ability to connect the dots means they not only react quickly to an ever-changing environment, but they can often predict and prepare for challenges before they occur.

Having Catalysts in leadership positions can help you see around corners and prepare for possible futures. Additionally, ensuring Catalysts are spread throughout the organization may help new processes and ideas be adopted more quickly.

CATALYSTS NEED EACH OTHER

Once you find your Catalysts, put them together. Here’s why: I find that Catalysts often move at a speed that can overwhelm non-Catalysts and lead to resistance, which can then trigger cycles of burnout for Catalysts. To survive, Catalysts need community.

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If you put your Catalysts in a room together and create space for them to meet regularly, they will be able to support one another, building off each other’s ideas, commiserating over challenges, and celebrating their successes. Instead of feeling pressured to fit a non-Catalyst mold and work process, they are likely to feel deeply seen and appreciated for who they are, which will allow them to lean into their superpowers as Catalysts.

One Catalyst can change something; many Catalysts, together, can transform everything! So find your Catalysts and connect them to each other.

CLEARLY COMMUNICATE WITH YOUR CATALYSTS

In addition to connecting your Catalysts to each other, you need to be deeply connected to your Catalysts. You need to be unwavering in your support for your Catalysts to thrive.

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Your first responsibility is to set clear expectations. Start by sharing the direction you’re taking the company, new strategic initiatives, and challenges. I’ve found that Catalysts have a superpower of envisioning a better future, but it’s important that this vision is aligned with the overall company vision. Clearly communicating the company vision will ground your Catalysts and ensure everybody is in the same boat going in the right direction.

You also need to be clear about how you want to see Catalysts show up in the organization. Are you OK if some disruption occurs? Are you OK with employee turnover? Are you OK with cannibalizing existing revenue? There may be a number of ways to achieve the company’s goals, but what are the guardrails for success? What’s off the table?

TURN YOUR CATALYSTS LOOSE (AND THEN PROTECT THEM)

While you want to communicate expectations clearly, avoid overly restricting your Catalysts. Supporting your Catalysts means giving them the latitude and autonomy to execute. You must empower your Catalysts to do things differently.

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Expecting your Catalysts to act the same as everyone else in the company and come out with different results does not set them up for success. If your Catalysts must constantly ask permission to act, you will limit what they can accomplish. Instead, let your Catalysts experiment and take calculated risks. It’s from these experiments that breakthroughs happen.

Finally, you need to be the shield for your Catalysts. They are taking risks for the organization and need to know you have their back. Protect them from resistance by publicly endorsing them and supporting their initiatives 100%. Additionally, recognize that change is a journey. It takes time; learning, mistakes, and failures are part of the process. Stay engaged with your Catalysts and make the time for them until the very end.

By connecting to your Catalysts, you can increase alignment with the company vision and expectations and create a culture that allows change.

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EMBED YOUR CATALYSTS WHERE YOU WANT CHANGE

With your Catalysts connected to each other and to you, there’s just one last connection to make: connecting your Catalysts to big, audacious problems to solve. You can’t expect your Catalysts to drive evolution without any guidance. If you want them to have an impact, you need to put them in charge of areas where you want to see change.

Your Catalysts are the ones who will be able to lead your organization through volatility, uncertainty, complexity, and ambiguity. But they can’t do it alone. They need you. Embrace and connect your Catalysts, and you’ll be able to not just survive but thrive in a VUCA world.


Shannon Lucas, Co-CEO, Catalyst Constellations
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