Making sense of uncertainty


Every year millions of wildebeest migrate on the Masai Mara and Serengeti plains in Africa. We have seen the pictures of how they cross the Mara and other rivers, with the crocodiles waiting for them. They stop suddenly, uncertain of what to do. We, humans, are like that as well. We have often come to a sudden stop to our stampede, most lately because of a small virus. We are still milling around, locked in and blinded by our own dust. The river ahead is deep, the other side unknown. Some are taking the first steps to cross into uncharted land. How do we take the herd along?

Behaving rationally in times of great uncertainty is not something we are taught in any other way than experience. Many of us are not exposed to such serious disruption often. It is certain that most of us are at that point in time now. What is uncertainty and how do we best deal with it? Especially if that uncertainty exists in complexity where we do not have time to understand what is happening to us, but we have to make sense of it. To make sense, one has to look at what happens dynamically and find patterns. Decisions cannot be made based on facts anymore. Uncertainty is also closely related to our outlook on the future. In scenario thinking we draw a space spanned by control and uncertainty. We look at the future at different depths. The possible or close-by future is often determined by considering what you think yourself, what other people think and the facts you have. But what if you are not certain of your own beliefs anymore, you do not see convergence in what others think and the facts are tainted by fake news? Thinking a bit deeper into the future, we place ourselves in the midst of three forces: the barriers of the past, the drivers of the present and the opportunities of the future. This is how we determine a plausible future. These forces interact on our decision making that would normally give us some sense of certainty supporting our decisions. However, like the world is experiencing now, we may be at a spot where the learnings from the past may not comfort us, since we have not been to a similar situation before, the present activities are too limited or too slow to bring about change and the future looks so bleak that we only see the apocalypse and no opportunity. Our future landscape is shaped by an interplay of technology, behaviour and events. Normally we have control over our technology, less often over emergent behaviour and almost never over events. The events, be they natural, geopolitical, economical or social, are the most uncertain. The world is at a nexus of all four of these types of events at the moment, with the Corona pandemic. Trade wars, a global depression, a natural microbial pandemic and radical changes in social behaviour are all shaping our futures. How do we live with such uncertainty and how do we make decisions in times like these?

Uncertainty leads to anxiety which leads to stress which may be a larger killer than the virus pandemic. How best to deal with uncertainty? The only way to survive is to let go and embrace what cannot be controlled. Change the world view on what used to be normal (everyone speaks about a “new normal”). Show that you are human with weaknesses, but not powerless, this will make people embrace your inputs. It is important to acknowledge what is causing the uncertainty. Know what you do not know, and proceed based on what you know. Get a firm process through which decisions are made. Realise that every decision you ever made had an element of uncertainty. In fact, people long for the past when “things were certain” – there was always a fair amount of uncertainty. Focus on what matters most and admit, absorb and understand mistakes. That means you also have to plan for failure. Do not reflect too long on failure. Do not be forced to go to places where you do not want to go. Take action that calm you and your people down. Trust your gut and rely on your intuition where you cannot rely on your experience. Do not to seek perfection, there is no time for that, but rather learn to morph decisions with time and drive minimum viable solutions.

One way of suppressing fear is to consciously switch from your limbic (primitive) brain to your rational (logical) brain. This will help you to suppress fear. Avoid a constant state of fight or flight. Envision the best for the future. Do not set up for failure, shift your attention to positive things. When you have small successes, rejoice in the achievement.

This is easier said than done. It is not even something that becomes better with practice. It is honing your emotional intelligence and acquiring an instinct that is new. It is being able to think ahead and see possibility and take selected avenues. It is not about perfection, but about agility. A few ideas that emerged from our first session on making sense of uncertainty are listed below:

  • Uncertainty is the state of not being sure that an event will realise, it is an emotional state, a feeling
  • Uncertainty can be temporary, things may change back to “normal”; it can be permanent, things may never change back to normal; or it can be transitional, things should not change back to normal
  • Uncertainty may be at the level of the state of a system, the unknown consequences of an act, or the ethics of consequences 
  • Uncertainty leads to  emotional chaos (confusion, conspiracy theories, fake news, lies)
  • To minimise uncertainty, keep focusing on the vision, and not short-term survival
  • Uncertainty is not preferred, but change that is forced by it is welcomed
  • The now is not the normal for the future, there may be a new normal, but it will be better than this
  • To effectively deal with uncertainty, we have to trust our instinct, make decisions and execute
  • Uncertainty is dealt with differently over different cultures
  • Collective decision making breeds more uncertainty than when servant leadership steps in
  • Good news philosophy rather than survival mode minimises uncertainty
  • Uncertainty leads to short term focus, taking the eye from the future
  • People from deprived backgrounds call what we call uncertainty, their life
  • Take fear out of uncertainty by constant communication and information sharing
  • Uncertainty must be recognised, but not as a newcomer – it has always been there, and adapted to
  • Leaders have to deal with their own uncertainty and that of others
  • We may see the end of globalisation as we come to know it, as governments are protecting own national interests
  • Uncertainty and insecurity sometimes bring out the best in people
  • Eradicate culture of blame and promote culture of entrepreneurial thinking
  • Applying 4IR solutions will alleviate uncertainty by machine intelligence support for decision making

How are you going to react to uncertainty? Come and share it with us in our follow-up “Around the fire… Making sense of uncertainty” session. We will announce the new date soon, depending on popular demand.

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