The radical Guide to Sitting Productively with Uncertainty

radical Briefing #0026


Step 1: See Your Uncertainty for What It Is

You don’t have all the answers, and your state of not knowing is not unique.

When The Conference Board, a business research firm, published their Measure of CEO Confidence report in Q1 of this year, they found executives’ projections for 2020 shot through with uncertainty around issues ranging from trade wars to climate change to the upcoming contentious US Presidential election. So much of such import seemed to be up in the air, and that was BEFORE Covid hit.

For most organizational leaders, the level of baseline uncertainty in the decision-making environment ratcheted up dramatically in Q2 2020, and while daily life has *started* to settle into some semblance of (new) routine in many regions, uncertainty around the economic, social, and personal future remains high.

And it will stay high: We’re all faced with uncertainty. The differentiator is in how we respond.

Step 2: Understand Your Relationship to Uncertainty

Not knowing doesn’t make you a bad or ineffective leader, but embracing not knowing might make you a significantly better one as we move further into our uncertain future.

Before rethinking your response, it helps to understand how you relate to uncertainty today. Ask yourself: Is it more stressful to know that you’re going to be 10 minutes late for a critical morning meeting or to be stuck in traffic wondering whether you’re going to be late for that critical morning meeting?

Most people will say the latter. It’s excruciating — the compound agony of worrying about the future possibility of the negative outcome and wondering whether you’re choosing the best course of action (This lane? The other lane? No, definitely the first lane!) to avert that outcome… and then wondering again whether anything you can do even makes a difference at all.

Our brains evolved the stress response to uncertainty as a means of triggering action. Stress in an unpredictable environment is the brain telling you to do something to make a positive outcome more likely or a negative outcome less likely. Our ancestors found this adaptive. In today’s complex decision environments, our instinctual stress response to uncertainty and our brains’ hardwired drive to seek control in unpredictable situations can be exhausting and self-defeating.

The psychological commitment to control not only makes sitting with uncertainty especially difficult, it’s also fundamentally at odds with the value we tend to place on adaptability as a core 21st-century leadership capacity in business.

Step 3: Differentiate Between Types of Uncertainty

Of course, the drive to control isn’t the only possible response to uncertainty, and to orient our possible responses properly, it helps to differentiate between types of uncertainty.

Mathematicians and philosophers both make a distinction between irreducible and reducible uncertainty — effectively, this is separating thethings you CANNOT know and the things that you COULD know…but don’t currently.


The distinction is useful. To illustrate with a personal example: Like so many firms, we at be radical found our business model (which significantly involved delivery of on-site, in-person learning programs designed for high interactivity) dramatically disrupted with the onset of the Covid crisis.

We had no idea how long the crisis and the lockdowns in response would last. We had no idea when we would be able to travel again. All of these were things we didn’t know and actually couldn’t know. These were our irreducible uncertainties.

But we had reducible uncertainties as well — many things that we could know but simply didn’t. What would the business model look like rebuilt around digital delivery? How would our programs change as we adapted them to new platforms and modalities? How might we create new experiences that would be better/more accessible because they were designed for digital?

Step 4: Get (a Little) Philosophical

In the graphic above, the box of irreducible uncertainties is black for a reason. We cannot know what’s really going on in there, so while all the questions spinning out from the uncertainties in that box might be interesting, they also might drive you mad. And they certainly aren’t where you want to focus your energies as an organizational leader.

Put another way: Unless the organization you’re leading is literally a cult, you don’t want to build your business model around unanswerable questions & irreducible uncertainties.

These, then, are the uncertainties that we want to accept and release. And it’s easier to set all of these aside (and to admit our utter lack of control), if we can direct our attention and creative energies somewhere else — i.e., the box where we keep all of the things we could know but don’t (yet).

Step 5: Embrace Reducible Uncertainty as a Space for Curiosity

The box of reducible uncertainties is a space for engaging curiosity and fostering the growth mindset. This is the box we’ll fill with what Warren Berger called “beautiful questions” — the kind that leverage curiosity to drive discovery and innovation. These questions should be ambitious but actionable. Fundamentally, they can be answered, and the pursuit of those answers — through research, experimentation, prototyping — drives learning for the individual and the organization.

You don’t need to have all the answers as a leader of a learning organization. You need to show up with and encourage the best questions. This is how we realize the upside of embracing uncertainty: Your uncertainty can create an astonishingly productive space for curiosity, creativity, and discovery.

radically yours,

Jeffrey and the be radical team

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