Harnessing Uncertainty: How to Prosper in the Unknowable New Normal

By Dave Ulrich | August 29, 2020

Key takeaways:

  • Harnessing uncertainty shifts the threat of not knowing the future into opportunity by becoming more energized, psychologically safe, focused, and agile.
  • Six principles for leaders to harness uncertainty include: tame apprehensions, envision the future, regulate expectations, experiment nimbly, guide choices, and collaborate frequently.
  • Since uncertainty always exists at some level, leaders who learn to harness it gain a lifelong skill.

Have you heard any of these questions lately?

  • What will the new normal look like?
  • How long will the recession last for my country, industry, and company?
  • What, where, and how will be the future of work?
  • When will a vaccine be available? Will COVID-20 be even worse?
  • And countless others

Two extreme options exist to answer these (and other) questions. On the one hand, some leaders suggest false hope and try to manage or control the uncertainty by offering solutions, proposing definitive answers, and declaring a new normal. These false hopes often create cynicism. On the other hand, some people give up or give in and tolerate uncertainty by accepting the lack of answers and merely reacting to changing conditions, thus abandoning hope leading to despair.

I propose a new option between these two extremes—harness uncertainty to have realistic optimism about what can happen (see Figure 1)—and review the why, what, and how of harnessing uncertainty.

Responses to Uncertainty: Harness Uncertainty
Figure 1: Responses to Uncertainty

Why Harness Uncertainty?

Leaders in organizations and people, in general, have less control over the context in which they work and live, than their responses to the context: content is king, but context is the kingdom. An enduring lesson of this pandemic will likely be the inevitable and lingering reality of uncertainty. In early 2020, people everywhere were living their normal lives, then the global pandemic upended routines, plans, actions, and lifestyles in ways no one could have predicted. Looking forward no one can definitively answer what’s next. Harnessing uncertainty avoids the two extremes of false hope or no hope in Figure 1.

Psychologists have found individuals with a tolerance for uncertainty (or ambiguity) have more positive cognitions (confidence), emotions (hope), and behaviors (decision making). Leadership and organization scholars have found that learning and organization agility (a response to uncertainty) is a key predictor of success. Simply stated, uncertainty is real; harnessing it determines our reality.

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What Does Harnessing Uncertainty Mean?

Uncertainty is not a new concept and many terms have been used to characterize it: unpredictability, variety, inconsistency, ambiguity incomprehensibility, complexity, disorder, unfamiliarity, and so forth. Harnessing means capturing energy (harness wind and solar energy or harness personal energy), protecting oneself for safety (wearing a harness in dangerous settings), focusing attention (using harnesses to control animals), and driving change (harness racing). Harnessing uncertainty means turning the threat of not knowing the future into opportunity by becoming more energized, psychologically safe, focused, and agile. Many disciplines have approached uncertainty as a key challenge, offered insights about uncertainty. and suggest positive outcomes from harnessing it (see summary).

Discipline Insights Harness Uncertainty to…
Military (VUCA) Establish disciplined processes for quick action; centralize operations, decentralize execution; empower people how to think. Win the war by empowering troops.
Neurology Pay attention to the brain functioning that sense threat vs. opportunity (SCARF). Seize opportunity more than threat.
Investing Manage risk of investments by calculating variance and probability of earnings. Target investments.
Psychology Focus on a growth mindset where failure is an opportunity to learn; do honest self-assessment; be calm, curious, and compassionate. Grow, learn, and have well being.
Strategy Establish strategic agility: explore scenarios, innovate fast, and disrupt industries. Win in the market.
Health Care Remove or reduce ”uncertainty tolerance“ for treatments and health care. Improve patient outcomes.
Physics Recognize that two objects can not occupy the same space at the same time. (Heisenberg) Deal with balancing competing demands.
Information Attend to reliability, credibility, and adequacy of information for decisions. Make better decisions.
Religion Act on faith without fully knowing the outcome; acquire hope for what can be. Discover hope—find meaning.

How to Harness Uncertainty (Six Principles):

Drawing from the above disciplines and from our research on organizations, let me propose six principles for harnessing uncertainty.

  1. Tame apprehensions

    Turn the mindset of uncertainty as threat into opportunity by acknowledging and running into the fears and anxiety it creates, naming the uncertainty and exploring its causes, knowing and overcoming one’s predispositions, and becoming more mindful by learning skills of being calm, curious, and compassionate.

  2. Envision the future

    Even in the midst of today’s uncertainty, anticipate what future success can be. Put specific events (e.g., working at home) into patterns (how I work) and then envision future patterns (how I might work in the future). Identify the specific behaviors of future opportunities and celebrate progress when acquiring those new behaviors.

  3. Regulate expectations

    Uncertainty often leads to disappointment because one can never do enough when enough is undefined which often leads to unrealistic expectations. Regulate expectations by recognizing personal strengths and weaknesses and defining personal and realistic measures of success. Accept minimal acceptable outcomes that shape a new identity. Recognize that a new identity emerging from uncertainty will take a gestation period to acquire.

  4. Experiment nimbly

    Uncertain settings can give rise to incredible innovation of ideas and solutions. Experiment by taking small and simple actions that you have not done before. Take risks by exploring new ways to approach old problems. Do scenario planning to see alternatives. Celebrate what works.

  5. Guide choices

    Use uncertainty to bring discipline to making better choices and decisions. Seize control of actions that are within your control by accessing information to make and improve decisions. Create a growth mindset to learn rigorously and adapt quickly. Pay less attention to trying to change factors outside of your control and more attention to guide choices within your control.

  6. Collaborate frequently

    Affiliate with others to share processes and insights for harnessing uncertainty. Identify others who face your uncertainties. Talk with them, learn from them, and invite their advice on your circumstances. Find an accountability partner who will support your new efforts. Belong to a community of those committed to harnessing uncertainty.

See summary in Figure 2:

Six Principles for leaders to Harness Uncertainty
Figure 2: Six Principles of Harnessing Uncertainty

These are clearly not the only six principles to harness uncertainty, but they offer guidance to individuals, leaders, and organizations as indicated below.

Harnessing Uncertainty Principles Definition Implications for…
Individuals

How can I (or others) harness uncertainty?

Leaders

How can leaders lead in uncertain times?

Organization

How can our organization harness uncertainty?

Tame apprehensions Turn the mindset from threat into opportunity      
Envision the future Anticipate future success and what can be      
Regulate expectations Avoid disappointment through realistic expectations      
Experiment nimbly Discover innovative ideas and solutions      
Guide choices Make better choices and decisions based on information      
Collaborate frequently Affiliate with a community to resolve uncertainty      

Conclusion

Uncertainty will likely outlast the current crisis. If business and HR leaders can learn to harness uncertainty, they will help individuals and organizations prosper in the unknowable new normal.

Prepare your leaders with agility to face any uncertainty that may arise through virtual Leadership Development with The RBL Group. Contact us to move forward with building leaders who build stakeholders’ confidence in the future.

Dave has published over 30 books on leadership, organization, and human resources. These ideas have shaped these how people and organizations value to customers, investors, and communities. He has consulted and done research with over half of the Fortune 200 and worked in over 80 countries.  He has received numerous public recognitions and lifetime awards for his work. 

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