Blog post

Uncertainty is the key that opens a closed mind

By Mike Rollings | August 23, 2010 | 2 Comments

TransformationManagementHuman BehaviorAltered States

Two weeks ago I wrote that organizations must Invest in the new secret weapon: Humans to unleash innovation, hypothesis generation, investigation, imagination, initiative, and calculated risk taking.  Part of this investment is creating an environment that is not based on fear and retribution, but instead one that fosters and appreciates contribution.

However, there is a roadblock in their way and it is actually what many of them believe to be the answer to an uncertain future – that roadblock is fact-based decision-making which leads to a quest for certainty.  (For those fact-hungry junkies… before you flip out, sit tight and enjoy the ride a bit.)

Many organizations strive to take only fact-based actions.  Yet, the sub-prime mortgage crisis provides one example of how smart, well educated people can develop blind reliance on “fact”. Some financial instrument managers relied on stale risk models that reinforced a false belief that risk was not dangerously high. Their inability to question the surety of the information created a financial disaster.

There are many human characteristics that contribute to being blinded by ‘fact’, some of which include our ability to manufacture reality, pursuing options that are solely in our personal best interests, and wanting to believe data that is aligned with our best interests.  These do not make us evil, they just make us human.  But consider this, many facts are “facts” because they are declared as such. The more an organization pursues ‘fact’, the more I believe they are open to failure.

Organizations pursuing ‘fact’ are more prone to failure because the quest for certainty is a false hope.  When you make a prediction you can have a degree of certainty, but you really cannot know until something actually happens.  Even the most certain of predictions are subject to uncertainty.  Decades ago I learned a great saying that I apply all the time “There is always a 1% possibility that I am wrong”.  It helps me remember that when I am most certain I am still fallible and that I should be open for learning.

I think that all organization and individuals would be better off if we gave up up the false hope that one can be certain. The quest for certainty is what I believe is actually holding back innovation and progress that comes from contribution. We tend to value and seek contribution more when we truly value perspectives that shed light on our blind spots.

Embracing the false hope of certainty also reduces responsiveness and agility.  It causes those that see emerging ideas in anomalous events to wait until fact-based certainty can be found.  It causes organizations to wait and not capitalize on the first mover advantage.  The quest for certainty also detracts from an open discussion of risk, because risk raises uncertainty and reduces one’s chances of gaining agreement to proceed.

In our quest for certainty, we create a distortion that we do not like and do not wish to openly discuss uncertainty. What if we just embraced uncertainty?  What if we decided that we would always consider and question assumptions?  How would strategy, investment prioritization, and other inquiry change if we asked some simple questions, like:

  • What is the likelihood of your business outcome happening and what are your assumptions?
  • What are the risks, ways to monitor them, and ways to mitigate them?
  • What experiments (actions) can taken to test your hypothesis?
  • How should this be monitored to understand influences and (+/-)outcomes?
  • What could we do to monitor and illuminate blind spots?

With prediction comes uncertainty, and even the best prediction has a degree of uncertainty that should be openly discussed.  If we embraced uncertainty, think how much more we would appreciate contribution to our ideas.

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  • Rotkapchen says:

    Indeed, businesses today are failing because of ‘facts’. Why? Because there is no such thing. They instead are “artifacts” which are representations of reality, but are not the reality itself.

    Typically, when they are stored or formatted for sharing, critical detail is removed. The removing of the detail helps for certain situations. The problem is that as the ‘fact’ is then applied to a variety of conditions/situations, the missing context becomes critical. All facts are conditional: they are only factual within those conditions. Remove a fact from the conditions and you just have a nice piece of data.

    We still need humans for sensemaking. Yes, we can and will muck stuff up, but to assume that we can avoid muck is nonsensical. Life is messy, it’s supposed to be. Floods bring life-bearing nutrients.

    The problem is that organizations have attempted to ‘control out’ all the living elements of a business (which is why they are dying). Living systems have attributes we have to embrace: they have cycles, they have waste, they need to rest.

    Find me a company with a business model/strategy that embraces these realities.

    And your bullet points? Looks like they’re lifted straight off of a Design Thinking agenda: challenge all assumptions, identify/embrace constraints, try it, get continuous feedback, adapt/adjust.

  • Mike Rollings says:

    Thanks for noticing that my thinking is very “design thinking” oriented. Decades ago I learned the importance of human-centered design and developed a profound fascination with the human mind. Yet the more I learn about human behavior, thinking, memories, etc. the more I appreciate social solutions to intractable business challenges.