How comfortable are you with ambiguous environments? If you are like most of us, then… not so much. At the same time, we know that we must build businesses and working conditions to survive VUCA environments- ones that are volatile, uncertain, complex and ambiguous.
We are not well prepared to deal with uncertainty. Most of us are educated in ways where we are rewarded for certainty. We are encouraged to be solutions-oriented, and not revel too long in the murky process of framing a challenge and problem-solving.
So then, what is the role of uncertainty?
Uncertainty is life’s way of setting up speed bumps to our work.
From this perspective, uncertainty is a tool and a gift. Dynamic leaders understand this and practice the following 3 conditions:
1. Flexibility: First, uncertainty means that we must stay buoyant and elastic. Rigid plans and structures won’t work. We must constantly challenge our assumptions.
2. Expansive Perspective: Second, uncertainty requires us to abandon a tunnel vision focus on a project or target, and to adopt a 360-degree broader vision of the problem or challenge before us. We must approach the problem sideways, in historical context, and flip it upside down and think through binary conditions.
3. Technique Gets Honed: Third, technique can trump the unsettling feelings that uncertainty brings. Where there is uncertainty, we must hone our technique, and have a steadfast set of skills and processes that we can use as reference points.
Those 3 conditions are relevant when we think about uncertainty on both an individual level and an organizational level. My friend and colleague Ingo Rauth, an innovation management expert, has referred to uncertainty on the individual level as “a very strange need”. On this more personal level, uncertainty prompts curiosity, wonder and anticipation. It requires us to adopt a more humble stance and be more comfortable with not having all of the answers.
On an organizational level, we can learn a lot about how to navigate uncertainty by looking at improvisational organizations. They are better equipped to design systems and structures that can navigate uncertainty. Improvisation is fundamentally a complex system, and specifically, it is a complex system that is chaordic (a term from Dee Hock, founder of VISA). Improvisation maintains a nice dynamic between chaos (which is randomness, not anarchy) and order (which is structure, not control). The Ritz Carlton is an example of an improvisational, chaordic organization. Leaders have designed fluid structures, such as their daily “Line-Ups” to help employees delight guests and anticipate their needs.
One could spend a lot of time and energy figuring out how to avoid uncertainty. But another option is to embrace the role of uncertainty. If we must survive in ambiguous environments and uncertainty isn’t going away, then it behooves us to think through more carefully how we might begin to incorporate uncertainty as a tool. The only constant in life is change!