Daily leadership activities to leverage complexity. 11th: Dealing with uncertainty?

When we can’t predict what are all the results of our actions, we are dealing with uncertainty. Since the first humans found out that there are unpleasant surprises hidden in the future, uncertainty is a challenge for mankind. Since those days, we have developed many mechanisms to handle uncertain. Humans always try to resolve uncertainty by controlling the future. Yet, uncertainty surprises us every day. 

Uncertainty is one byproduct of complexity. When there are more autonomous and diverse agents that establish more interlinks between them, the odds of predicting all actions of all actors create uncertainty.

Many times in the past we thought we gained control of the future, but reality taught us again and again that uncertainty is inevitable. Controlling the future is regretfully an illusion. We have our own limitations that prevent us from reducing uncertainty. We need to learn how to live with it.

In this post, I want to cover the main ways humans developed over the years to deal with uncertainties. As a leader, you need to be familiar with those methods and verify if you are using the right tools for the current situation. Part of the expectation from you as a leader is also to try new methods that might end up with better results.

Forecasting. We believe the past will return in the future, so we are using heuristics and algorithms to forecast the future based on past events. This effort contains many known activities like risk management, probability theory, and project management. Although using forecasting can reduce uncertainties, it is far away from eliminating them. Regretfully, uncertainty is stronger and leaves many wrong forecasts behind it. Yet, this is a viable tool. 

There are several methods that humans are using to reduce uncertainty by increasing known behaviors of part of the social systems. One method is the usage of norms, rules, laws, mental models and ethics (a belief what is right and wrong). Those tools create a more predictable behavior of elements in a social system and therefore reduce uncertainty.

The other way is to create institutions that increase predictable behavior. Governments and language are two examples form daily life. In social organizations, leadership and management are key institutions that are trying to increase predictability or at least this one of their goals.

Innovation and creativity are key for many reasons, one of them is dealing with uncertainty. Innovation and creativity enable us to think about unrealistic events that will fold and to create tools or methods to deal with them. Sometimes those unrealistic scenarios (or variations of them) will fold in reality and create uncertainty. Thanks to the effort we invested in tools and methods ahead of time, we can minimize or remove the impact of those uncertainties. Sometimes this effort will be a waste of time.

Monitoring and alerting. If we developed capabilities to monitor for indications of uncertainty and alert when they found, we can give more time to prepare for uncertainty. This activity won’t minimize any uncertainty. It will buy us more time to deal with the uncertainty and therefore reduce its impact. Those activities also increase people’s sense of control, which helps in the remediation of uncertainties impact.

Creating redundancies and looseness in a system is another way to create buffers that will enable people to have more time to deal with uncertainties. Those features create resiliency that enables the system to keep on working and people to deal with the impacts of uncertainty. buy the way, having a single decision-maker can be very problematic in case of uncertainty. 

The best way to deal with uncertainty is to create the capacity to adapt quickly to new changes. It’s a long process of evolution, of trail and error. This long process creates attributes, properties, and behaviors that will create adaptability when uncertainty hits the fence. In man-made systems, someone needs to make sure that people see uncertainty as a threat.  

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