Hope: On the Other Side of Certainty

"Hang on to your hat. Hang on to your hope. And wind the clock, for tomorrow is another day." - E.B. White

Since 1986, when I first talked about chaos, I have made people uncomfortable. Large groups and small, I could always tell when they started to “get” it because they would begin to squirm. I hadn’t lost their attention, I had hit a nerve. Most people responded to complex uncertainty with dread. It frightened them. You may want to check out your own reactions to these words:  uncertainty, complexity, chaos, out of control, emergence, and the unknowable. Does your throat get tight? Does your breathing change? Do you begin to expect the worst? Sometimes I still do, too. The idea of uncertainty intimidated people, and the practice of inquiry made them sweat. Even those who approached complexity with curiosity were quite uncomfortable in its presence.

In my talks and training, I tried to cope with these common reactions by telling stories, using humor, and sharing my own anxieties. I helped people use themselves as models to realize that common experiences, like parenting and managing your own health, are complex, uncertain, emergent phenomena. Anecdotes became antidotes for fear, as I shared the theory and practice of human systems dynamics. They laughed, they puzzled, they learned, and all the time they were afraid of what they couldn’t predict or control. Sometimes, they were even afraid of me!

In the past two years, the pattern has changed. Of course, I am talking in different ways about different things, but my message is essentially the same. I still talk about dynamical systems that cannot be predicted or controlled, but reactions are different. I see a very different response these days.  I still talk about complex dynamics of human systems; wicked problems that can’t be solved; and the next wise action that emerges from Adaptive Action. But I perceive a different pattern in how people respond.

What I see today is hope.

At first it surprised me. People in my Adaptive Action Labs would breathe easier, laugh, stand straighter, and leave with new energy. I started taking before-and-after photos. I wanted to test my perceptions that people looked different, younger and more alive, when they left than when they arrived for my classes. It was true. They did!

Like all my surprises, this one kicked off a cycle of inquiry and Adaptive Action. What are the patterns I am observing? So what is changing in mindset and discourse? Now what should I do, as leader and teacher, to encourage this generative reaction?  At first, I thought it was a generational difference. I expected youngsters to be more comfortable with chaos than my middle-aged colleagues. That may be true, but even the old folks were trading anxiety for hope when they heard me talk about complex dynamics of human systems. 

Over time, I am coming to understand why and how uncertainty is now a source of hope, rather than despair, for my students and clients. As I integrate these insights into my Adaptive Action Labs, I see the energy rise and the momentum for change build. I will share six of the patterns I am seeing here. I wonder if they will help you, too, find hope in chaos. 

Complexity and uncertainty are undeniable. There was a time, not so long ago, that every uncertainty was seen as a mistake. We thought that competent planning and careful implementation could ensure a safe, predictable, and controllable future. That delusion is fading fast. Today, no one knows what is going to happen. Whether you focus on climate, economics, technology, society, or politics, no one trusts others’ predictions. We can no longer rely on a pundit’s view of an unfolding future—we have seen them disproved too many times. So, if there is no looming certainty, if we are not required to create perfection, we can be free to see and create the future we desire. At least we can hope to have that power. 

I can ask good questions without having to know answers. In Western cultures, we have been addicted to expertise for decades. As children, we thought adults had all the answers. As students, we looked to our teachers. In organizations and governments we relied on our leaders. So, to enter into the realm of powerful adult, we thought we had to generate answers to every question. If we didn’t have answers, we didn’t deserve to succeed or to be seen as successful. Those expectations are fading fast.

In a complex, emergent environment, answers are not all that useful. They have a very short shelf-life. What is true and best here and now may be wrong in another place or time. Answers are not reliable proof of expertise. Expertise, in these uncertain times, comes from having good questions to ask. Moving into inquiry releases the pressure of always having to know. It opens space of hope for us to explore together, not deliver the perfect truth of a know-it-all expert.     

In a complex adaptive system, everyone has agency. Power used to come from position or expertise. Some had it, but most didn’t. We drew on others’ power to make our own decisions. Rather than paying attention to my own health, I found nutritionists to tell me what to eat. Rather than crafting my own clothes, I bought “the perfect thing” from off of the rack. I willingly gave away my agency for the security of being “right.”

Today, in a rapidly changing landscape, I cannot be certain of what will be right, but I do have a choice. In a complex adaptive system, patterns of the whole emerge from the choices and interactions of the parts. I am one of the parts in my complex human system, so my choices and interactions matter. Maybe my influence will get lost in the crowd, but maybe not. There is always a chance that some small thing I do might tip the system into some radically different pattern.  At least, I can now hope that will happen. 

Nobody else knows for sure, either. The world of certainty encourages people to bully others with their opinions about what the future might hold. The one who “knows for sure,” will be the one who controls resources and opportunities. Economic, social, and political patterns are driven by the dominant voice of certainty. Those of us who know less or stand with less confidence are cowed into silence. We are expected to compete in the world of opinion or be quiet and get on board.

In a world of emergent reality, no one—not even the most confident person—predicts or controls the future. Each of us has the power to use what we know, to make meaning for ourselves and our communities, and to take action to create the best future we can imagine. Patterns of power and expertise still exist, but we no longer see them as infallible. We recognize their blind spots and appreciate our own insights.   

The learning never stops. When we step away from the tedium of predict-and-control, a new world of curiosity opens up. Every surprise is an opportunity for exploration. Every Adaptive Action cycle launches the next. Every NOW WHAT? sparks another WHAT? Rather than dreading what the future will hold, we can eagerly anticipate what it will bring. Even if the surprise is not a pleasant one, it opens options for the next breakthrough, and the next, and the next.

Inquiry and pattern spotting are central to human systems dynamics, and I think they are core to the hope and possibility people see in our view of complexity. We see patterns, not problems. We stand in inquiry to engage with a world that is full of fascinating unknowns. In this reality, even patterns with death open doors of hope and possibility. Our community is learning together even at such a precious and sacred transition.

I don’t have to predict risks to mitigate them. A world of certainty obligates us to analyze and balance risk and reward. Before we take a first step, we expect to predict and balance good outcomes against bad ones. We assume that risk can and should be avoided by successful and responsible people. Each of us takes on that responsibility. Or at least we used to think we should.

If the system includes any uncertainty (as human systems always do) it is impossible to avoid  the risks of unintended consequences. When we ignored complexity, we performed under the expectations of pre-determined balance of risk and reward. Whether we acknowledged it or not, we played a game we could never win. Embracing complexity doesn’t mean that we stop analyzing risk and reward. It does mean that we respond with agility to mitigate the risks that emerge and ignore all the other ones we might be able to imagine. We know that we cannot know all the consequences of our actions. We also know that we must act in the face of this partial knowledge. We act, we observe, we learn, then we act again—mitigating unpredictable risks as they emerge.   

From our perspective in human systems dynamics, certainty is great when you can get it, but you can’t always get it. Answers, risk analysis, solutions, and power have their place, but they also have limitations. When certainty was impossible, but we thought we were responsible to create it, we were slaves to the future. As long as we can see emergent patterns in chaotic situations, we are free to engage in the moment to create the future we dare hope for.  

I now believe my clients and colleagues discover hope through human systems dynamics because our understanding of an emerging reality frees them from the constraints and demands of a world driven by certainty. I hope we continue to develop and expand this field of opportunity, and I hope you will join the conversation. 


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