The three dangers of certainty.

We tend to like to keep things knowable. And by knowable I’m referring to feeling as certain about something as we possibly can. The conundrum is that most domains that require design and leadership are complex and dynamic, and some aspects of these systems are unknowable. And where we have complexity and ambiguity what do we have? Yep… we have uncertainty.

The way we typically deal with uncertainty is to view it as something that needs to be managed. We do this in business all the time, we manage uncertainty with a risk lens. Coming up with multiple risk mitigation strategies to know what to do if a particular scenario plays out in an unpredictable future. And when we have a risk mitigation approach to uncertainty what inevitably happens is we get rid of as much of it as we can. Mostly because we feel more comfortable and in control. We feel we make better decisions when we have more certainty, in fact, we often wait to act as we wait for certainty to reach a certain arbitrary threshold which is informed by our past experiences, and then we take action.

Much of my exploration of these concepts are within a design context. And when I use those words together, what I actually mean is when we are engaging in the activity of bringing something into reality. It can be brand new or it can be an improvement on something already in existence. Sometimes the systems within which we think be and do are too complex to have certainty about our actions and our design decisions. So we need to become comfortable operating in ambiguous situations where uncertainty is high.

To help you ponder why practicing being more comfortable  with uncertainty is worth your time and effort, I’ve shared the three dangers that come with needing or seeking certainty in leadership and design. These three ‘dangers’ are aspects I have consistently observed in our industry.


#1 Needing certainty reduces the opportunity for discovery

When we seek certainty, we reduce ambiguity. By reducing ambiguity we are naturally convergent with our thinking. As we know, there is time and place for convergent and divergent thinking, and knowing when you’ve done enough of one or the other comes with experience and mastery. The practice of becoming more comfortable with uncertainty helps you stay in an ambiguous space for longer. When we do this, we increase the opportunity for new connections between thoughts, ideas and insights to emerge. We allow time for the necessary emergence that is required in any design process. Reducing the urge to find the answer, to become clearer and more well defined in your thinking, enables you to explore that which would otherwise not be available to you.


#2 Needing certainty bases the future on the past

For us to become certain about something, we often refer to something we have experienced in the past. Of course, the current situation can never be exactly the same as what has happened in the past, because it is a different time and most often different people are involved, but our brains pick up the patterns, trigger the memories of what worked last time, and we are off and running. We use these past experiences to help us bring certainty to uncertain situations and this makes everyone feel comfortable.

It is completely ok to do this, in fact you won’t be able to help yourself, but the most important aspect to this point is to do so consciously. Know that you are using the past to help create the future and understand what implication this has for the work you are doing, or the way you are leading. We only get into trouble when we are not aware of what is actually informing our thoughts and decisions. We need to rely on our experience all the time, that’s the whole point of Mastery, but we also need to know when the situation calls us to let go of our expertise and experience, and see what this unique constellation is requiring of us and look to establish some new thinking and new perspectives to help create the future.


#3 Needing certainty reduces opportunity for learning

I’ve mentioned earlier that one of the drivers to decrease uncertainty is to feel safer about decisions we are making. The reason we want to feel safer is so we don’t make mistakes and negatively impact other people. This is a good instinct to have, especially if you’re interested in your work having a positive impact on humanity. However, if we let this fear drive our thinking, being and doing, we will reduce the opportunity for learning. We often learn the most valuable lessons in the shortest timeframes when we make mistakes-- as long as we are open to the learning of course.


I think a deeper message here is that so much of our lives is actually uncertain, and in some situations our drive for certainty is futile. Living with uncertainty, and being truly comfortable with not knowing what this or that means, or where this or that is going, enables you to show up every moment, be as present as you can be and do your best as the current situation requires of you.

That takes incredible self awareness and is a superpower in an unpredictable world, and one worth cultivating.


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