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Uncertainty - Strategies for Facing an Unknown Future

To say the pace of change is increasing is a cliché, but nevertheless true. Think company merger, new product launch, new practice, new storefront, funding shortfall, change in management, career, technology – have we mentioned globalization? The most difficult and damaging part of change is uncertainty – not knowing what the future will hold.

People often treat uncertainty as an “either/or” situation; i.e., given a specific circumstance, decision, or strategy, the future outcome either is, or is not, uncertain.

Here’s a smarter approach for dealing with change constructively: Instead of asking if something is uncertain, ask in what way is it uncertain. In other words, what type of uncertainty are we dealing with?

The answer can help you avoid common thinking traps when dealing with an unknown future.

Four Types of Uncertainty

There are four possible answers when you question what type of uncertainty it is you’re dealing with. I characterize these by metaphors of path, fork, field, and sky, representing a progression of uncertainty (similar to Courtney’s four levels of uncertainty found in his book, 20/20 Foresight).

Path Imagine you suddenly find yourself in the middle of the woods on a dark night. You can’t see, so you pull your flashlight from your pocket, and when you turn it on you can see a path on which you can go forward.

Charting a clear path through some kinds of uncertainty is a matter of collecting the right information that can ‘shed light’ on a way to proceed. Analysis of recent trends can accurately provide a meaningful basis for advanced planning, strategy, and decision making when the expected future is an extension of the past. Example: Sales volume of widgets directly correlates with an age demographic in twelve cities, so sales in a new city could be forecast on that city’s age demographic. In the last four years employees at company X with a good performance review have received a 3-5% salary increase, so with a good performance review an employee could expect a similar raise this year.

Fork Imagine you are walking on the path described above, and you come to a place where the path branches – the proverbial fork in the road.

The future may be uncertain, but two or more mutually exclusive outcomes are evident. Example: The findings of a study of a new medical widget will determine whether the widget obtains regulatory approval, will be put on a continued study list, or be denied approval. Following the new merger of company X and Y, it’s clear there will be more engineers than the new company needs. An engineer currently at company X might either be retained or let go.

Field Imagine walking down a path where you arrive at a field surrounded by hedge except for a gate at either end. It’s possible to go anywhere in the field to reach the opposite gate.

Sometimes there are numerous, maybe even infinite, possible outcomes; however, those outcomes fall within a predictable range. Example: A shop is fully confident that the lowest number of widgets they can sell in given week is 5, and the most they can sell before running out is 50. Our engineer with company X is assured he will be retained, but he will not know his position or duties until the merger is complete (the possible duties are bounded by the range of responsibilities an engineer can perform).

Sky Imagine you suddenly find yourself floating in the air. Any direction is possible, whether you are blown by the wind or can move on your own accord.

”Sky” uncertainty implies it’s anyone’s guess as to what will happen next – full uncertainty. The everyday rules for business, or life, are no longer relevant. “Sky” uncertainty can be associated with grand opportunities (think internet before the bubble). More often, one sees this level of uncertainty with major upheavals. Examples would be the collapse of the Soviet Union, the days following 9/11 in the United States, the 2004 tsunami in Sri Lanka, or Hurricane Katrina in New Orleans.

Avoiding the Traps

If you ask how any particular circumstance is uncertain, we have seen the answer could be like one of the following: finding a path, coming to a fork in the road, crossing a field, or up in the sky. Each kind of uncertainty suggests differing responses.

In the emotional wake of major change, many people immediately fall into an all or nothing stance when faced with an unknown future. Reacting to uncertainty as an “all or nothing” proposition becomes a thinking trap which leads to treating all uncertainty as if it is of the “sky” or “path” variety.

At one extreme, treating any unknown as complete uncertainty is a recipe for excess stress. If uncertainty is “all or nothing”, then any uncertainty becomes sky uncertainty. This can easily lead one to give up any effort at thinking through decision or strategy options, simply guessing how to proceed, or going forward on wishful thinking.

The other extreme is just as problematic. Failure to recognize that there are circumstances where we just can’t know the future, or else trying to remove all uncertainty can easily lead to ceaseless gathering of information. Endlessly seeking a single path that isn’t there results in wasted effort or paralysis by analysis.

I believe that much of the major change experienced in modern organizations – at least change that is problematic – involves choices among a number of options or range of possibilities, i.e. fork or field uncertainty. (Rarely are situations requiring decisions or strategies truly sky uncertain.) Being able to contain the uncertainty to limited options or a bounded range provides psychological relief to the stress of uncertainty. It also opens the door for reasonable thinking and analysis when no amount of available information will determine a single right path.

Bottom line: When it comes to uncertainty, avoid an “all or nothing” approach. Instead, identify the underlying type of uncertainty by asking how something is uncertain. Your answer will give you the best foundation for moving forward.

by Tom Stevens (c)2007
Tom Stevens helps individuals and organizations create brilliant futures and make a difference. To contact him, visit

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