In the realm of Donald Rumsfeld’s ‘Unknown Unknowns’ the last three years have been historic. Yet, despite the clichés saying ours are ‘uniquely uncertain times’, unknowns have dictated human development since Noah built his ark.
Unknowns, the source of all uncertainty, not only drive social and geopolitical change but also determine most of the major and many of the minor transformations in our daily and working lives. And this presents a problem, because fear of the unknown is hardwired into all of us. Multiple neural alarm systems are set to trigger in the event of uncertainty, and yet it's only by addressing uncertainly that we progress successfully through life.
Uncertainty affects relationships. Tennyson’s “Better to have loved and lost than to have never loved at all” is about having the courage to face the unknown. Business life from applying for a job to starting up a business is dominated by decisions taken where the outcomes will be uncertain. In fact, uncertainty provides the open door to possibility and to new opportunities.
Facing up to or embracing uncertainty, either to navigate difficult situations or to foster change and innovation, is a fundamental human capability—a critical skill that, according to the authors of The Upside of Uncertainty: A Guide to Finding Possibility in the Unknown, can be improved through learning.
Basing their new book on the scientific evidence that uncertainty ability can be learned, and referencing a wide range of academic research, interviews, and personal experience, INSEAD professor Nathan Furr and entrepreneur Susannah Harmon Furr offer a sophisticated yet accessible guide to turning uncertainty into a force for creativity, positive action and good.
The core of the book presents a series of tools for attaining uncertainty ability. Each of these tools is a short chapter. The chapters are grouped under four main section headings: Reframe; Prime; Do; Sustain. This is just a brief taster of each section:
Reframe. Change your perspective to rethink uncertainty as opportunity. Swap your fear of loss for anticipation of possible gain.
Prime. Assess your uncertainty ability and prepare to face unknowns. Balance risks by taking on a mix of certain and uncertain projects. Avoid risking it all. Reimagine your resources and don’t settle too early for sub-optimal certainty.
Do. Rather than obsessing with control and managing risk, understand how to activate and unlock the possibilities in the uncertainties you face. It is important to be adaptable to navigate through the fog that often surrounds uncertainty. Have the patience to make progress through small steps and to change direction if necessary.
Sustain. Build the strength and resilience to address uncertainty, by caring for your emotional wellbeing, using your reason to see real situations clearly as they are. Be open to “leaps of insight, connection, and serendipity that change and inspire us.”
The two authors’ provide a welcome antidote to those ambiguous, confusing and fearful feelings that too often inhibit our ability to act in the face of unknown outcomes. Their approach offers an optimistic way to perceive change, to foster ideas, and to enable personal growth. In a business context, where doing nothing in the face of an uncertain future is in itself a management decision, this is a much-needed guide to how to take positive decisions.
‘The Upside of Uncertainty: A Guide to Finding Possibility in the Unknown,’ Nathan Furr and Susannah Harmon Furr. Published by Harvard Business Review Press, 2022, ISBN: 978-1-64782-301-6