The Value of Uncertainty

Uncertainty is a permanent part of the leadership landscape – Andy Stanley


“Often wrong, but never uncertain.”  I’m always troubled when I hear that phrase about another person.  The world I see around me is never that certain, it’s never black and white.  In every situation, there are different viewpoints, and different paths you can take.  People who shun uncertainty, who never question their own approach, typically create more problems than they solve.


Some people try to manage uncertainty with simple, direct action.  The classic example is Alexander and the Gordian Knot.  This legend has Alexander faced with the problem of untying a knot that has no beginning.  The prophecy held that the person who untied the knot would become king of Asia.  Alexander fails in his first attempt and responds by taking his sword and hacking apart the knot.


Simple, direct action often feels good.  It replaces uncertainty with certainty.  It helps a person to feel powerful, instead of confused or frustrated.  Sometimes, if the underlying problem is simple enough, this type of action can lead to useful results.  Unfortunately, most uncertainty is a reflection of complexity, where simplistic choices often lead to serious, unintended consequences.


When managed effectively, uncertainty can be a powerful ally.  Uncertainty compels you to think deeply about a situation, and to consider multiple and even conflicting viewpoints.  Uncertainty requires you to remain attentive, and to adapt your approach to emerging information and conditions.  Uncertainty inspires a healthy degree of humility, and encourages you to test your judgments and be open to new viewpoints.


Following are a few simple steps you can follow to make sure that you realize full value from your own uncertainty.

  • Learn to listen for “weak signals” – Uncertainty isn’t heralded with trumpets.  Instead, it appears quietly, like the ominous movie music that foreshadows the villain’s arrival.  Uncertainty is what’s known as a “weak signal” – relevant information that can be drowned out by noisy, urgent messages.  To use uncertainty effectively, you must listen to the signals and recognize your concerns BEFORE the problem emerges.
  • Diverge before you decide – Some people see consultation as a sign of weakness, that you somehow aren’t decisive.  I see it as a demonstration of strength, where you know your own mind but also recognize the potential value of others’ viewpoints.  Divergence shouldn’t mean “analysis paralysis” with its endless discussion.  Rather, it’s a direct and skillful request for testing (here is my view – what are your concerns, do you see anything I’ve missed, where might this idea go wrong)
  • Embrace conflicting viewpoints – Conflict isn’t competition, and it’s certainly not about winning or losing.  Conflict is a “clash of viewpoints” – where people pursue different goals or methods because of how they see the world.  When managed collaboratively, conflict can be very useful, because it reveals a completely different viewpoint that can your challenge your thinking, and even lead you into different choices.
  • Anticipate unintended consequences – In this uncertain world, people are fixated on achieving their goals, often to the point that they ignore or even discount unfavorable options.  However, almost all projects face challenges, and success often depends on your ability to respond to unexpected issues.  It’s much easier to respond if you consider the unintended consequences before your begin.
  • Know how to get to Plan B – Plan B doesn’t mean that you always have a contingency plan in place.  Instead, it means having a clear vision, shared with your key stakeholders, about how you want to respond when the unexpected occurs.  People often make poor crisis decisions because (1) they’re at risk, (2) they’re in a rush, and (3) they haven’t had the discussion (or resolved the potential conflicts) about what people will and won’t do to respond to an crisis.


I hope that this short piece has given you a different way to look at uncertainty, as well as some concrete tools for how to take advantage of it.