There is a lot of talk in businesses, NGOs, the public sector, and in the world where I work—business education—about learning how to navigate uncertainty. I have opinions about this, of course. However, my first reaction to this question is always to want to pose another question, and that is "when do we do anything else but navigate uncertainty?"
Every time we talk to a friend or a colleague, or even our spouse or partner, we cannot be certain how they will respond. Regardless of how well we know them, we may not know what just happened to them on the commute home from work, or what their boss just said to them fifteen minutes earlier, or about the email that just moved up a big deadline by two weeks, and so on. And these events will influence how they respond to what we say or ask. If there is such uncertainty in familiar relationships, consider how much greater it can be when we are working with new markets, or in cultures that are foreign to us, or across sector.
The point is, uncertainty is where we all live all the time and so we will be both more skillful at navigating it and also more comfortable with doing so if we are able to name and accept that fact. Can "normalize" uncertainty?
I have thought about this a lot because the work I do is all about enabling people—including myself—to feel more comfortable and more skillful at voicing and enacting our values in the workplace. And one of the key lessons I have learned from interviewing people who have, in fact, successfully voiced their values is that it helps if you don't think about the situation as unusual. We need to recognize and accept that none of us manages can navigate a career without running into circumstances when our own values conflict with what we are explicitly asked to do—or implicitly expected to do—by our boss or our colleagues or our clients.
If we do not recognize this fact, we often have that "deer in headlights" experience when our boss asks us to distort the quarterly sales report, or a customer asks us to sweeten the deal inappropriately. We feel like we just need to get through the situation so we can get back to work. But those individuals who manage to handle these situations with their sanity and their values intact are usually those who take the situation in stride and who actually view this kind of conflict as part of their responsibility. Rather than reacting, they are able to draw on the full complement of skills and arguments and abilities that they would bring to any other business challenge. And they can do so precisely because they see this as just another business challenge.
In the same way, dealing with uncertainty in our work lives or any other part of our lives is a pretty common occurrence. Rather than seeing it as barrier to action, simply see it as a mechanism that triggers our most creative and innovative actions because it is a phenomenon that encourages us to ask "What if?" What if our projections are too low, or too high? What if our safety procedures are inadequate? What if our competitors are faster than we expected? What if our marketing message does not resonate with some of our international markets?
Generating "what if" scenarios and engaging in brainstorming sessions to develop contingencies accomplishes several goals:
It reminds us that we don't and can't know everything, therefore normalizing uncertainty.
It allows us to practice responding creatively, nimbly, and without panic to the unexpected.
It builds our confidence and our competence at letting go of assumptions. Hanging on to invalid assumptions well past their expiration date is one of the greatest risks in uncertainty.
And finally, it builds our capacity for innovation in general.
With all these benefits, the next time someone mentions "uncertainty," perhaps we should just say: Bring it on! ?Can you share examples of times when uncertainty led to innovation?
Mary C. Gentile is the creator and director of Giving Voice to Values and a senior research scholar at Babson College.