Posted on
December 15, 2023

Reflecting on the last six months of the Uncertainty Project

Another six months has passed here at the Uncertainty Project. We’re close to celebrating our first birthday!

Looking back, we really start to see that this is nothing more than a learning journey for us. Every page we turn seems to lead to four more. Pages from decades ago. Pages from last week’s tech breakthrough. Pages from a new best-seller. Pages from disciplines far removed from our job title. It’s exhilarating.

Like we did at the end of the summer, we’ve tried to extract some common themes from the most recent posts, and hints at what pages we might be turning next…

Companies don’t think of decision-making as work or as a practice

Making a decision isn’t like making a piece of content, or making a change to a product. Yet there are clearly some good practices to consider when deciding how to decide. We spend a lot of energy talking about practices and workflows for all the other things we make… why don’t decisions get the same treatment?

We explored how a new emphasis on the way decisions get made can be a lever to improve the quality and speed of an organization’s (big) decisions. This is most relevant in areas where the stakes are high, and the approach (to decision making) remains unexamined. We see this in places like product strategy, goal setting, and situations where there is rich data to mine. The fine points of strategy, OKRs, and data integrity are debated in depth, but the path to arriving at choice is left to the whims of the individual.

What may have worked in the days when we could gather around a whiteboard in an office, for a dialog to draft a list of options, have frayed and disappeared in our transition to Zoom and Slack. We need new ways-of-working for decision making, and with the advances in AI, there is no time to wait.

The challenge of driving changes in behaviors and learning

For many, it isn’t a question of whether a change in ways-of-working is a good idea, it’s a question of how to take a first step. We shared how to orient yourself within an eco-cycle or lifecycle, to better understand when to steer attitudes toward learning and change. We explored how power dynamics and decision making are intertwined, and how to see the hidden forces they produce.

What would safe-to-fail experiments in navigating uncertainty look like? We offered ideas on new rituals that would offer new conversations and thought patterns at the low, low price of an hour or so. And we explored how to justify time for informal strategic conversations, perhaps less structured, that could yield tangible declarations of shared beliefs, which could be managed in a more structured way.

The essential relationship between uncertainty and complexity in our organizations

Over the last few months, we have continued down an unexpected path - one towards a better understanding of how our modern organizations behave like complex adaptive systems. Truth-seeking, grasping for certainty, and making strategic decisions all build on our perception of causality: “If I do this thing, then that thing should happen…”

But standing behind these kinds of statements seems like wishful thinking in many of the complex, novel, ground-breaking environments we are working in today. We are too busy learning things to be comfortable with that kind of conviction. We can talk in terms of probabilities or likelihood, yes, but we know it is not 100%. Yet we have to act.

Deeper understanding of complex adaptive systems offers a new vocabulary to apply: independent agents, choosing their enabling constraints, which unlock governing constraints, and produce coordination dynamics. Striving for stability with a different mindset. Leaders can trade a false certainty for a chance to tweak the probability space of possible outcomes.

These are next steps in finding the right tools to move leaders’ mission from “command-and-control” to “building-the-environment-space”. Influence is still there, but it works indirectly (i.e. via constraints). Probabilities replace certainties, either formally or informally. Hedges on causality take shape as portfolios of possibilities.

It feels like we’ve just gotten started learning about this topic. Expect more on this over the next six months!