Uncertainty – Leading the possible

It’s only natural to seek certainty, especially in the face of the unknown – and the unknown is likely to be with us at a very heightened level for a substantial amount of time.

When most of us face a challenge, we typically fall back on our standard operating procedures. Call this “managing the probable.” In much of our education and in many of our formative experiences, we’ve learned that some simple problems have one right answer. For more complicated problems, we respond to such uncertainty with analysis or leave that analysis to the experienced hands of others. We look for leaders who know the way forward and offer some assurance of predictability.

This way of approaching situations involves a whole suite of routines grounded in a mind-set of clarity if not outright certainty. This is absolutely not the situation now. To that end, in a high level of certainty situation we are accustomed to ask sharp-edged questions intended to narrow our focus: What is the expected return on this investment? What is the three-year plan for this venture? But asking these kinds of questions, very often legitimate in business-as-usual settings, may constrain management teams in atypical, complex situations, such as responding to a quickly changing market or a quickly changing external environment due to the pandemic. This leads us to operate with an excessively simple model in enormously messy circumstances. We simply fail to perceive how different pieces of reality interact and how to foster better outcomes.

Hence the need to move from “managing the probable” to “leading the possible”. This requires us to address challenges in a fundamentally different way. Rather than simply disaggregating complexities into pieces we find more manageable, we should also broaden our range of interventions by breaking out of familiar patterns and using a whole new approach that allows us to expand our options, experiment in low-risk ways and realise potentially higher payoffs and rewards. But be warned: “leading the possible” involves coping with our own anxieties about an unknowable and uncontrollable world.

Thus I will forward you with a few simple habits of mind that can push towards thinking and acting differently. These should not be considered a checklist of to-dos; indeed, the very point is to move beyond a check-the-box mentality.

Unexpected possibilities
We relish stories of unexpected possibilities—little bets that created huge and unforeseen benefits. Stories of how Facebook or Twitter turned out into what they are today. In all these stories there is a common baseline. The leaders of these new ventures used unconventional approaches to try new, unexpected moves—with enormous payoffs. But it’s not just large innovations that make a difference. When people think in new ways, very small shifts can have unexpected and significant consequences.

Habits of mind
Uncertainty can’t be solved with a whole load of procedures; it takes new habits of mind to lead the possible. Research shows three such habits stretch the capabilities of leaders and help them not only to lead the possible but also to excel in it.

  • Ask different questions: The questions we ask emerge from our typical patterns of thought. We focus on narrowing down a problem so that we can find a solution. But we often fail to notice that in doing so we constrain the solution and make it ordinary. Asking different questions helps slow down the process. We begin to take in the full range of data available to us and in consequence have a significantly wider set of possible options. Examples of such questions include the following: What do I expect not to find? How could I attune to the unexpected? What might I be discounting or explaining away a little too quickly? What would happen if I shifted one of my core assumptions on an issue, just as an experiment?
  • Take multiple perspectives: No one can predict when or where the next vital idea will emerge, but we can support an expansive view of our present conditions. We can start by pushing back on our natural inclination to believe that the data we see are all the data we need and by distrusting our natural craving for alignment. Considering multiple perspectives opens up our field of vision. Diversity might create more disagreement and short-term conflict, but in an uncertain environment, a more expansive set of solutions is desirable. Take the perspective of someone who frustrates or irritates you. What might that person have to teach you? Seek out the opinions of people beyond your comfort zone. The perspectives of among others, younger people, more junior staff and dissatisfied customers can be insightful and surprising. Listen to what other people have to say. Donot try to convince them to change their conclusions; you should listen to learn. If you can understand their perspectives well enough, you might even find that our own conclusions change.
  • See systems: This approach is about seeing patterns of behaviour,and then developing and trying small “safe-to-fail” experiments to nudge the system in a more helpful direction. Leaders are best served when they get a wider, more systemic view of the present. Yet we’ve been trained to follow our natural inclination to examine the component parts. We assume a straightforward and linear connection between cause and effect. Finally, we look for root causes at the center of problems. In doing these things, we often fail to perceive the broader forces at work. The more we can hold on to the special features of systems, the more we can create experiments in unexpected places to open up new possibilities. To best understand systems, it’s helpful to resist the urge to disaggregate problems and to solve them right away. We shouldn’t waste time arguing about the best solution; instead, we can pick several good but different solutions and experiment with them all in a small way.

Leadership implications
Of course, such shifts of mind have implications. One casualty may be our cherished image of the traditional leader. The default model of a clear-minded person, certain of his or her outlook and ideas, is not consistent with the qualities that allow possibilities to flourish. However in the complex world we are in now, we’re better served by leaders with humility, a keen sense of their own limitations, an insatiable curiosity and an orientation to learning and development – rather than a know-it-all approach.

The world was never simple nor static and presently in it is even more so. In the face of new challenges, we all default to how we think we should act and to what seems to have worked before. “Managing the probable” is reassuring but leaves us more open to being blindsided. Some problems do not lend themselves to simple models or sophisticated algorithms. We must treat the unprecedented uncertainty around us in a different and complex mindset that can unlock solutions of immense creativity and power.

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