Three Myths About Dealing With Uncertainty

Avoid Being StuckThis week's survey was about uncertainty--Can we control our world enough to limit or do away with uncertainty? What can we control when the whole world seems uncertain and out of control? What can we do to respond to the uncertainty in our lives? Uncertainty exists for all of us, and we experience it in myriad ways--as unpredictability in the world around us, as doubt about action--our own others', and as hesitancy in decision making and action taking. And in today's landscape, uncertainty has increased. Our workplaces, communities, neighborhoods are more diverse, faster moving, and more crowded. Interdependencies and forces that influence our actions and choices come from multiple--and often unknown--sources. We each bring our own unique history, experiences, and perceptions to the table. No wonder the world feels so uncertain in so many ways! 

There was a time when, with less complexity in our lives, it was easier to pretend that control was possible. So over time, leadership and organizational patterns came to rely on a number of practices or beliefs about control that still shape our responses today. In HSD, we see these as myths that no longer serve us as we build capacity to deal with day-to-day challenges in our worlds. There are a number of those myths, and three emerge frequently in our interactions with clients and customers. We also saw evidence of them in the survey responses. Those three are:

  • If I just work harder, faster, and get better data, I can stay ahead of this challenge.
  • The answer has to be complicated.
  • There is one right answer to a dilemma, and if everyone just works toward that right answer, then uncertainty will be diminished.

Those myths just don't work any longer, and HSD offers Adaptive Action as an alternative to help us see a different path through each one.

Work harder and faster with more data.

In HSD we recognize that it's not how hard or fast I work, it's what I do with my time that's the most important factor. If I am going the wrong direction, driving faster doesn't fix that. It just gets me lost more quickly. When I am only working on the surface challenges or on the "symptoms" of what's wrong, working harder and faster doesn't reduce the uncertainty, and it does not get me any more control. Often as a leader I felt like I was trying to hold down a tarp in a high wind. Every time I got it tamped down in one spot, it would blow up in another. And by the time I got it all weighted down in all the parts, it was so heavy and bulky that I couldn't work with it. 

In HSD, when we use Adaptive Action, we recognize that it's not more data we need--it's just understanding what data is most helpful. In the  "What?"  stage, we gather data about patterns of interaction and decision making by asking about the similarities, differences, and connections we see around us. Then we ask  "So what?"  about impact and outcomes of the ways the parts of the system are similar, the ways they are different, and the connections that tie them together. We begin to explore options for shifting those similarities, differences, and connections to change the pattern we experience. Finally in the  "Now what?"  stage, we take action and see what happens, rounding back to the next  "What?"  to describe the new pattern.

The answer has to be complicated.

Until very recently taking something apart seemed to be the best way to figure it out. If it works with watches and televisions, why shouldn't it work with uncertainty? If I just understand all the things that make my life uncertain, then I can gain enough control to reduce the certainty. And when there are that many moving parts, I have to devise a very complicated plan or model to be able to deal with all those parts.

This approach, however, does not leverage one of the greatest gifts--and challenges-- of complex systems. In human systems, the conditions that shape patterns of interaction and decision making are massively entangled, and they are often open to forces and influences we can't see or know. When I deal with only the symptoms or outcomes of the patterns I see, actions taken in one place cause multiple shifts and changes across the system. So when I try to carry out a complicated and specific plan, I cause unintended consequences that then require more complications in my plan as I try to control for those.  

On the other hand, when I take a simple approach like Adaptive Action, I use short iterative cycles of seeing, understanding, and action to create change in the conditions that shape the patterns I see. Then I can look for the impact and plan for my next step. The cycles can be as short as a heartbeat or as long as a lifetime. I can work with others to engage in multiple cycles at one time, looking at different dimensions of one challenge or issue. And we remain connected to each other to assure that we continue adapting in coherent ways that are fit to purpose at any given point or time. Your work doesn't have to be complicated when you are working with the underlying conditions that shape patterns.

There is one right answer.

When we work in complex systems, it's not about finding and sticking with the one right answer. Nor it is about blaming when someone doesn't "get" that answer. It's more about looking for what fits in the given context and situation. It's about remaining in inquiry as you ask  What? ,  So what? , and  Now what? 

Because of the great diversity, because there are multiple forces that are massively entangled, and because each part of the system has built on history and experience, there can never be just one right answer that drives all decisions and activity. The system has to have be sensitive to see and understand the patterns and forces at work, responsive and take action to shift or shape conditions that generate those patterns, and robust, with capacity to engage in ongoing iterative cycles at all scales in  continuous adaptation toward fitness.

These are three myths that inform actions as individuals and groups try to deal with the uncertainty of their work, and still they continue to feel overwhelmed and frustrated at progress they make. Still they believe that if they just continue to engage, they will somehow regain the control they think they have lost. Our new book,  Adaptive Action: Leveraging Uncertainty in Your Organization , offers a different path that, while it does not allow us to predict or control, it helps us find viable options for action to influence patterns of life that shape our experiences from day to day.

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