There is a fog of uncertainty that clouds the future — and it makes it very difficult to predict.
Just think about the uncertainties of a normal day in your life:
- At what time tomorrow morning will my child finally be persuaded to put on his clothes and be ready to leave for daycare?
- How will my colleagues react to my presentation on the new change initiative in our department?
- What massive global event will fill up the news space later in the evening?
The future is uncertain, and we humans have difficulty coping with that.
By Tore Nielsen
31st of January 2023
Trying to predict
We often approach work with the goal of eliminating uncertainty as much as possible. We try to guess what is likely to happen with varying degrees of probability and plan for the future based on those forecasts.
If you look at your work context – and society in general – you’ll notice how much of our life is structured around increasing predictability and removing uncertainty. Five-year forecasts, time-tracking, estimates, risk assessments, reports, time-tracking, budgeting, and calendars are tools that help us tame uncertainty and eliminate surprises.
But the world is way more unpredictable, complex, and random than we think – and we’d like.
Despite our best efforts to eliminate the uncertainty in work, it continuously surprises us and often leads to delays, budget overruns, and disappointing results. But this doesn’t prevent us from doing the same thing again and again. The “predict and control” project management methods are widespread in our approach to work, and we stubbornly cling to this dream of a predictable future, despite past evidence of the opposite.
So why do we keep doing it?
There’s clearly a mismatch between our expectations and reality. When we look into the future, our perception is not only influenced by what we think might happen but also by what we’d like to happen.
Fear of the unknown is a fundamental part of the human experience – a basic instinct that makes us seek the comfort and safety of knowing what’s going on. That is why we try to deal with uncertainty by trying to eliminate it.
A tale of two approaches
Imagine standing in uneven terrain surrounded by a thick impenetrable fog and needing to find your way out.
You could try to make a detailed analysis of past journeys, maps, and other available landscape data and devise a perfect plan to get out of the fog. You could then try to optimize the trip according to that plan, ensuring you don’t take any unnecessary steps outside the planned route.
This approach is like how you would optimize and finetune a machine: it’s about finding the optimal way.
It might sound attractive on paper, but it doesn’t leave much room for error. Should the path be obstructed, it requires time-consuming re-planning, or if you move too fast and confidently along the planned route, you might fall off a cliff.
Another approach would be to gaze into the horizon and decide on a direction, take small steps towards that, move along slowly and carefully, and adjust your path according to what you encounter.
This way may be suboptimal, but it gets you moving toward your goal with a lower risk of injury. When we have uncertainty in our work, our approach should be more like this.
There are plenty of approaches to work that can help you navigate uncertainty.
1: Where to go
To navigate through the fog, you need to know where you are heading. It would help if you had something to steer your direction; for that, you should look into the future.
The methods from Futures Thinking can help you envision many possible futures based on the signals you are observing in the present. This enables you to create scenarios of several versions of the future, and you might better understand what possible future you find plausible and preferable.
You can create a vision of the future you want and start taking action to increase the likelihood of getting there.
A vision of the future serves as a glowing light in the distance that guides you when you move along the foggy path. But to get there, you need a way to move safely.
2: How to get there
Methods and techniques from Agile software development have emerged specifically to address the inherent complexity and unpredictability of creating digital products. These approaches involve working in small steps that give you feedback on where you are going.
This way of working in an iterative, experiment-based fashion is highly applicable to any work involving uncertainty. Product development, creating startups, organizational transformations, etc., all benefit from methods that optimize learning and help you effectively invest time and resources when you have incomplete information and many potential paths to follow.
The “good enough for now, safe enough to try” mindset ensures that you move forward, don’t take excessive risks and can adapt to changing circumstances.
But even with a light to guide our direction and a safe way of moving forward, we haven’t removed the fog – we are still in a land of uncertainty.
3: How to stay calm
How do you feel about not knowing?
Even with proper methods for navigating under uncertainty, we still must accept it as the underlying premise of our existence. That means we must assume that the world will keep throwing unexpected things in our path. Even our flexible plans will need to be adapted, our experiments will surprise us, and game-changing events will jump out of nowhere.
Our mindset will be crucial if we wish to avoid frustration, anxiety, and stress while staying sane and comfortable under these conditions.
How to stay calm under uncertainty has been a subject of human interest since the dawn of history. Several answers to this have sprung up independently of each other in religion, traditions, and philosophy all around the world.
The Stoics of ancient Greece and Rome argue, “It’s not what happens to you, but how you react to it that matters.” A tranquil state of mind is in everyone’s power, even if the world is uncertain. Philosophies like stoicism have found a revival in the 21st century, where the world seems increasingly complex and unpredictable.
Whatever your preferred school of thought or spirituality might be, it is beneficial to have some wisdom to guide your mindset when navigating uncertainty.
A guide for uncertainty
It is still very difficult to predict the future. However, these guidelines help us navigate the fog – and cope with the uncertainty.
- Paint the future you find plausible and preferable
- Move in small steps toward that future, adapting as you go along
- Try to accept uncertainty and find ways to be comfortable not knowing
The Horizon Scanning Document on the Futures of Work
It’s called a ‘Horizon Scanning’ document because we scout into the horizon to see what developments and movements that are coming towards us.
We stand on our toes – or even a ladder – to get a glimpse of the anomalies and odd happenings, that might affect us.
The Horizon Scanning Document is used both as inspiration for your work, and as a concrete tool for Signal Sorting during the Futures Thinking process.
The document does not list the current trends but focuses on the signals that might lead to the next trends.