“It ain't what you don't know that gets you into trouble. It's what you know for sure that just ain't so.”

Mark Twain


The problem is that we expect certainty and get surprise. Accountability, responsibility, performance, reliability, trust, quality—all these basic concepts of business require the insight to predict and the power to control. When I entered the world of business, certainty was not a big problem. Usually, within my scope of work, I could work hard enough, think clearly enough, plan well enough to promise and deliver on my promises. Today, it doesn’t matter what I do, I cannot predict a natural disaster, stock market crash, mortgage collapse, or healthcare crisis for myself or my team. I must plan and prepare for the unexpected. Even more importantly, I have to be ready to go “off plan” to adapt to whatever emerges in the moment. Adaptive Action and Pattern Logic are the keys to reliability and quality, when certainty is out of the question.       

In our professional lives, we try to banish uncertainty, but we know how to delight in surprise outside of work. Falling in love is uncertain. The creative process is uncertain. The color of a sunset is uncertain. A baby’s first steps are uncertain. We can’t know any of these things until they happen, but they still happen. The more we try to squeeze the uncertainty out, the less interesting things become. What will our prenuptial agreement say? Will you finish your masterwork by Tuesday? Shall we wear the green-tinted glasses for today’s sunset? Get out the camera, little Bobby will walk today. This sounds pretty absurd, but it is often what we do in business. We are so busy trying to control things that we miss the delight and opportunity of surprise. 

On the other hand, the mere thought of stepping out of the known and into an unpredictable future makes us uncomfortable. It can trigger waves of physical, psychological, and emotional discomfort. Even as I write this sentence I can feel the tension of anxiety in my belly and shoulders. Perhaps we learned these reactions early in our careers when we were expected to deliver without authority over resources. Perhaps our DNA carries autonomic response to protect our species from natural forces uncontrolled. Perhaps our myths and rituals teach us the danger of unknowing and the comfort of certainty. Whatever the cause, we can become victims of our own drives toward command and control.

Of course, assumptions of certainty make it easier to prepare, communicate, invest in the future. Certainty releases our attention to focus on longer term and more significant questions than whether we will survive in the next moment. It helps us feel safe and secure. It gives us the power of choice and the possibility to be accountable. We don’t want to give it up, but what are our options for getting the best from uncertainty and leaving the rest behind?

The first step is to recognize that uncertainty is the problem. When we feel anxious, it is easy to blame someone else or lash out in anger, fear, or frustration. Take a mindful moment to ask whether the tension you feel is because you do not know what the future holds.

In that moment of realization, try asking yourself these questions and reflect on your answers.

  • What uncertainty is non-negotiable right now?
    If something is uncertain and there is nothing you can do to erase it, then take a deep breath, choose what you can control, and make that your next wise action.

  • What certainties are relevant right now, and how do I know what I know?
    Mistaken certainty is usually more dangerous than uncertainty. Challenge the things you are sure about, test your assumptions, and be sure you are not creating certainty to avoid the fear of the alternative.

  • So what do I know about when and how I will be sure?
    Some uncertainties are temporary, and the best thing to do is wait for more information. Others are essentially unknowable, and delay will not help at all.

  • So what are the risks of uncertainty in this moment?
    When you know what is not known, then you can gauge your risks and opportunities. How do you mitigate the risks and leverage the opportunities?

  • Given what I know right now, what is my next wise action?
    You can only know what you know and what you can find out, but you still have to act. When you are conscious of what is known and unknown, you can choose what is next. Given that your every action shifts the world around you, you can always begin again to see what certainties have emerged and which new uncertainties stand before you.

This practice will not create certainty where there is none, but it will give you the adaptive capacity to see, understand, and influence your world, regardless of the surprises it might hold.

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