What Does it Mean to Leverage Uncertainty?

Seeking Order in ChaosIt is six o’clock in the morning, and your teenage son is not home yet.

Your doctor calls you in after a routine exam.

There is a natural disaster near the home of friends or relatives on the other side of town, the nation, or the globe.

It is your turn to make a presentation to the executive committee.

New legislation or regulations for your industry are in the making.

Even as I write these sentences, I am aware of tension in my shoulders and butterflies in my stomach.  How do you feel as you read them?  Why do such situations spark powerful and immediate physical and emotional reactions?  Though each one may point to a terrible possibility, none of them promises a bad outcome.  What do they all have in common that could trigger such strong emotions?

Uncertainty is the culprit.

Maybe the response to uncertainty is instinctive, as we translate uncertainty to danger.  Maybe the response is learned, as we equate uncertainty with incompetence. Maybe we develop this response as children, as we learn to separate from the protection of parents. Wherever this visceral reaction comes from, it is a pervasive pattern.

In the past, we have individually and collectively built infrastructure to protect us from uncertainty.  Insurance, planning processes, stop lights, premarital agreements, fire departments, government licensing, and professional standards—all were created to squeeze uncertainty out of our everyday lives. And, they used to work well enough. We protected ourselves from the most predictable uncertainties, and found ways to count the rest as anomalies and accidents to be avoided. 

In the past decade, the West has come face-to-face with uncertainties that dwarfed the capacity of our systems to predict or control. In addition to personal and local challenges, as a culture we have experienced airplanes used as bombs, children wielding weapons, terrible natural disasters, economic near-collapse, and most recently a bomb at the finish line of the Boston Marathon. Not only are these surprises larger than our current infrastructure can handle, we cannot even conceive of an infrastructure that could tame uncertainties of this magnitude. We need a new strategy to cope with uncertainty that outstrips our current capacities. 

We need Adaptive Action. 

In a moment of panic that follows an emerging uncertainty, sufficient information is not available and high level analysis isn’t possible. Still we need to take reasonable action.  Alone or with others, the response has to be immediate, based on local information, and constructive toward desirable ends.  Three simple questions work from this foundation and set the conditions for action, even in the midst of massive uncertainty.  No matter how little you know, you can always answer the Adaptive Action questions.

  • What do I observe in the place in this moment?
  • So what does this mean to me?
  • Now what can I do to shift the situation toward greater safety or stability?          

Not only will these three questions lead to productive action in the moment of surprise, they also give you confidence that you will be ready for the next and the next and the next disaster as they arise.  In our experience, this confidence translates to hope and resilience. So, even if you can’t know where your son is, what the medical tests revealed, where your friends are when the storm hit, how the committee will respond, or what politics will prevail, you can be sure of something.  You can be sure that you will continually learn and use what you learn to build adaptive capacity for the next overwhelming moment of uncertainty.    

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