In The Midst Of Uncertainty

“Humankind is facing unprecedented revolutions, all of our old stories are crumbling and no new story has so far emerged to replace them. How can we prepare ourselves and our children for a world of such unprecedented transformations and radical uncertainties?”  -Yuri Noah Harari via What The Year 2050 Has In Store For Humankind (Wired magazine)

We live in strange and often difficult times.

In the midst of these expansive networks and hyper-connection, our world is also flourishing with issues of growing disconnection and discontinuity, across our society, our systems, and even our organizations. Frustration and even dysfunction abounds in these arenas, as we attempt to solve today’s adaptive challenges and dilemmas by overlaying yesterday’s technical answers and solutions. We are slowly coming to the understanding that what solved yesterday’s technical problems, won’t do the same for today’s adaptive challenges and dilemmas.

In many ways, we find ourselves facing unprecedented uncertainty.

And while we are coming to the realization that the solutions which solved yesterday’s technical problems, are ill-prepared to handle today and tomorrow’s adaptive challenges, we still find that we are recoiling back to the safety of what served us best in the past. We find ourselves reverting to the sureness of “past” practices over the possibility of what may emerge through engaging “next” practices. Too often, we are choosing to entrench ourselves in the stories of the past over building new narratives for the future. And unfortunately, we are finding that the past has limited ability and promise towards providing us with greater understandings and certainty for this very unknown future we are facing.

As Yuri Noah Harari shares in 21 Lessons For The 21st Century, “At present, humankind is far from reaching any consensus on these questions. We are still in the nihilist moment of disillusionment and anger, after people have lost faith in the old stories but before they have embraced new ones.”  For which he adds, “Do you feel like running down the street crying “The apocalypse is upon us”? Try telling yourself, “No, it’s not that. Truth is, I just don’t understand what’s going on in the world.”

We find ourselves trying to make sense of this growing disconnection, discontinuity, and even dysfunction and discontentment that the current digital revolution is raining down upon us, by digging deeper into the known. We find ourselves craving certainty and seeking out societal and organizational anchors to grip on too in the midst of the uncertainties and ambiguity today’s world is currently serving up. Amidst this often chaotic and disruptive pace of change, we find ourselves seeking the safety of the shore, rather than searching out new possibilities beyond our current boundaries of understanding. We find ourselves choosing the safety of the known, over the uncertainty of the unknown.

We find ourselves rereading the “old” stories, over the opportunity to create “new” narratives. 

Or as Yuri Noah Harari puts forth, “We are consequently left with the task of creating an updated story for the world. Just as the upheavals of the Industrial Revolution gave birth to the novel ideologies of the twentieth century, so the coming revolutions in biotechnology and information technology are likely to require fresh visions. The next decades might therefore be characterized by intense soul-searching and by the formulation of new social and political models.”

Today’s world will require much more creative and innovative thinking, especially as we will be required to not only reimagine what already exists, but begin to imagine new methods for moving forward. We can no longer overlay those technical solutions upon our adaptive challenges and hope it will serve us well in moving more relevantly into the future. Rather, we are going to need to engage in the questions and environments that will not only provoke, but allow for new thinking and new solutions to arise. We will have to determine the opportunity that resides deep within the current chaos that today’s uncertainties and ambiguity has created across society, as well as within our organizational landscapes.

We need to find our compass in the chaos, which will require us begin to…

Engage Wonder, Curiosity and Creativity: As previous CEO of IDEO Tim Brown shares, “One of the greatest weapons that we have against uncertainty is creativity.  It’s how we forge something new out of it.” Seeing uncertainty as an opportunity allows for us to “forge something new” instead of recoiling back to the safety of the known. Wonder, curiosity and creativity allow us to venture out beyond our current individual and organizational boundaries, making uncertainty and ambiguity an opportunity for exploration and new learning.  For which Ronald Heifetz adds, “Conflict is the primary engine of creativity and innovation.  People don’t learn by staring into a mirror, people learn by encountering difference.”

Build Up A Greater Sense Of Tolerance For Uncertainty, Ambiguity And Not-Knowing: As Tim Brown of IDEO puts forth, “The right unit of exploration is the question, not the solution.  We tend to think we bring people together to brainstorm solutions. But unless you agree on the question, it’s very hard to get people to come up with solutions.” Too often, we move right into convergence, as we want a quick solution to the challenges and dilemmas that we are facing. Instead, we have to create space for divergent thinking, space for questions to exist without moving directly into solutions, space to suspend our need for the instant gratification of knowing. We have to be able to create environments where we can effectively lean into the unknown, to eventually allow new possibilities to emerge towards change and future transformations. We have be intentional and reflective in our willingness to fend off our brain’s natural craving for certainty.

Seek Out Opportunities For New Narratives And Possibility Framing: It is difficult to ignore the dystopian, jobless future narrative that seems to be endlessly forecasted for the future. We hear the stories of the coming of automation, augmentation, and the growing capabilities of artificial intelligence. However, we must never forget that we are the current creators and authors of our narrative, a narrative that our children and students will continue to write.  A narrative that is both ours and theirs to manufacture. We must never forget that we have the ability to design our future, for better or worse, and it is up to us to design that future in a way that is to be more equitable, ethical and human-centered. Which means that we must be able to look deep into the current chaos that often surrounds us and our organizations and be able to both discern and frame new possibilities for the future. Engaging individuals and organizations in a variety of scenarios, allows for the space and opportunity to determine how change can best be engaged and necessary transformations eventually achieved.

Openness To Emerging Patterns And Sensemaking: As Karl E. Weick shares, “The basic idea of sensemaking is that reality is an ongoing accomplishment that emerges from efforts to create order and make retrospective sense of what occurs.” Or as Bob Johansen adds, “Making the future starts with listening and making sense.” Our ability to learn and continue to learn allows us to continue to see the emerging interaction of that knowledge within our own context and how that knowledge interacts with the world around us. By expanding both the depth and breadth of that knowledge, we are then able to connect more and more dots, dots that are often invisible to us before that knowledge is engaged and acquired. Making those connections, both individually and organizationally, often allows for a sense of deeper learning to scale and spread, moving us more towards the reality of becoming and working within an authentic learning organization.

Move From Control To Emergence: According to Fritjob Capra, “The phenomenon of emergence takes place at critical points of instability that arise from fluctuations in the environment, amplified by feedback loops.” Too often, the idea and opportunity for emergence is buried under the weight of control, especially in hierarchical systems. Especially in those systems where processes are entirely focused only on predictable and linear outcomes. But in a world of advancing adaptive challenges and dilemmas, far too often the outcomes, especially in the midst of dynamic organizational complexity, are found to be neither predictable nor linear. In a time when creativity and innovation are often necessary skillsets and mindsets for relevancy in the future, environments of control will entrench us in the known, while ultimately limiting the emergence of new possibilities. Allowing for experimentation and discovery learning must be accompanied with a openness towards emergence, and seeing what naturally and authentically emerges from those processes. As shared in Leaders Make The Future“The challenge for leaders is to flip a dilemma into an opportunity.”

Cultivate Agility, Adaptability And Learnability: As Ronald Heifetz puts forth, “The improvisational ability to lead adaptively relies on responding to the present situation rather than importing the past into the present and laying it on the current situation like an imperfect template.” Moving forward requires an intentional reflection of and towards our mental models and how those mental models can impede future progress, both at speed and scale. Our mental models are important in our ongoing explanation of how we see the world, we just need to be more aware of the explanation that those mental models are providing. Reframing our lens towards those mental models can effectively allow us to unlearn and unbraid the thinking, as well as the behaviors, that keeps us tied to the past and continually overlaying that past upon the present and emerging future. Allowing new and ongoing learning to infiltrate those mental models allows us to stay both agile and adaptive in our thinking and doing, both as individuals and as organizations.

Assessing Risk, Experimentation And Discovery Learning: As Stefan Thomke puts forth, “Experimentation matters because it fuels the discovery and creation of knowledge and thereby leads to the development and improvement of products, processes, systems, and organizations.” Or as shared in Exponential Organizations, “Perhaps the attribute most critical to a learning organization is experimentation.” Experimentation allows individuals and organizations to generate a diversity of ideas and perspectives, as well as craft and create a variety of solutions towards change and the adaptive challenges and dilemmas being faced. It provides the environment and space for curiosity, for learning, as well as ongoing cycles of application and iteration. Being intentional with the experimentation process allows for better risk assessment towards the failure possibly being faced. Too often, experimentation occurs without an appropriate understanding or assessment of the risk involved. It is important, both individually and organizationally, that risk assessment is incorporated into the process of experimentation to determine the appropriate level or levels of risk that people and the organization will not only face, but are willing to actually engage in.

Clarity, Coherence And Communication: As Bob Johansen shares, “The future will reward clarity – but punish certainty.” It will be vital that leaders communicate in ways that create greater clarity and coherence across the organization. Communicating in ways that create greater clarity and coherence across the organizational landscape is much more difficult than we think, and an often underestimated leadership ability and skillset. Too often leaders believe that they have over-communicated, and very often, in reality, have under-communicated. Today’s leaders will need to master a variety of communication tools that allow them better scale and spread organizational clarity and coherence. As Bob Johansen adds, “In this world, leaders will need to be very clear where they are going, but very flexible about how they get there. Clarity is very different from certainty, however. Certainty is too brittle in a VUCA World, while clarity is required to make your way through uncertainty.”

Leading in the midst of uncertainty and ambiguity is easier said than done. Building up leadership, as well as individual and organizational tolerance and capacity to exist effectively amid uncertainty and ambiguity will be a necessary skillset and mindset for the future. Especially in a world that is being inundated with more and more adaptive challenges and dilemmas. In all actuality, we are best to remember, permanence and safety is an illusion…whereas, the future will require a greater sense of agility, adaptability, and learnability, as well as a willingness to engage in the experimentation that leads to discovery learning, under the guise of intentional and calculated risk.

As the Stanford shares, “Navigating ambiguity is this ability to recognize and persist in the discomfort of not knowing, and develop tactics to overcome ambiguity when needed. Ambiguity can arise in many places – within a project, a process, or within oneself. It’s important to put students in ambiguous situations and give them tactics to emerge from them.”


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