The opening of the sci-fi television series “Star Trek” told us space is the final frontier to which only a few elite travelers would “boldly go.” It was inferred that the rest of us would stay safely on Earth where living was as stable and predictable as NBC’s programming schedule.
In 1987, well before the end of the 20th century, Michael Stipe, of the band REM, wrote the lyric, “It’s the end of the world as we know it,” assaulting us with a dizzying kaleidoscope of world-changing events that we were all powerless to alter.
Fast forward to the attacks of 9/11, Arab Spring followed by Arab chaos, Brexit, Donald Trump’s election and unorthodox presidency, social media concepts growing out of control, and all of our most private and marketable data being tossed to the digital wind.
We can’t ignore uncertainty today. It’s harder than ever to pretend anything is certain.
Have we reached the final frontier? Will we be continually forging into the unknown of occurrences, consequences and disasters that nobody can predict?
Yes, and we need to come out of denial about it.
George Binney, leadership consultant and co-author of the book “Breaking Free of Bonkers: How to Lead in Today’s Crazy World of Organizations,” says our increasing uncertainty is often articulated in this simple real-world question: “Who is my boss this week?”
“There’s so much upheaval that people are experiencing in the organization now,” Binney said. “We’re constantly restructuring; big change initiatives come through repeatedly. It’s been the case for a long time, but I think there are more of them, partly as a response to the volatile times. It’s the frequency of it that we’re noticing.”
Binney, who is based in London, has seen this firsthand in his work untangling the reorganization of the U.K.’s National Health Service after it reorganized in 2012 under the Health and Social Care Act.
“Everybody found themselves in a new organization,” Binney said. “Pretty much ever since, the system has been seeking to live with that reorganization and find ways of working with it, but it’s been a struggle. People didn’t want another reorganization to correct the errors in the previous one, so they’ve adapted and found ways of working with the system even if it was unsatisfactory. A lot of the ways that are now functioning are in spite of the formal organization.”
Binney’s approach to deconstructing uncertainty has been focused on a practical approach of watching people work and observing where efforts fall apart in the chaos that comes from ambiguity.
The growing chaos organizations face is the result of complexity, according to Cheryl Stokes, a partner specializing in leadership development at the executive search and consulting firm Heidrick & Struggles. Stokes cited former Big Three automaker General Motors as an example of a company that is navigating complexity and reinventing itself to be more agile than most people expect a megacompany to be.
“Absolutely, uncertainty has increased,” Stokes said. “We’ve all heard the term VUCA (volatility, uncertainty, complexity, ambiguity) and in my experience it’s not just the uncertainty in the world, but it’s the complexity — we’re at a tipping point in terms of the degree of complexity that leaders and organizations face today.”
That complexity is a drain on performance.
“We’ve done a lot of research around this area of building agility,” Stokes said. “We look at organizations that are super accelerators — those that outperform their peers in the market and who can adapt and pivot faster than their competitors. Complexity has been shown repeatedly to be one of the top factors that negatively impact an organization’s performance. So one of the things we work with our clients on in becoming more agile is the idea of simplicity. Being less complex is one step toward simplicity and accelerating performance, which actually helps you have more certainty in an uncertain world.”
Observing uncertainty as it affects individuals in their day-to-day progress, and understanding it as the opposite of simplicity, are ways of deconstructing the challenge of uncertainty.
Using Uncertainty to Our Advantage
All-knowingness and certainty are conventions of human organizations. However, to our credit, as we’ve become more democratic in life and government, leadership has evolved to a point where it’s not about knowing everything, but rather about learning everything. Or at least getting as close as possible to this goal.
Nassim Taleb, author of “The Black Swan,” calls uncertainty the opposite of knowledge or the complete lack of it, as he alludes to specific moments of near total ignorance in history just before major unexpected events, such as World War I and the stock market crash of 1929. In the book’s prologue, he writes: “This is a book about uncertainty; to this author, the rare event equals uncertainty … I don’t particularly care about the usual. If you want to get an idea of a friend’s temperament, ethics and personal elegance, you need to look at him under the tests of severe circumstances, not under the regular rosy glow of daily life. … Indeed the normal is often irrelevant.”
This turns the monster of uncertainty inside out. If bad things can befall us at any time, isn’t it just as likely that something wonderful could drop into our laps?
In this scenario, learning and its ability to prepare people to engage amid uncertainty has never had a more important role in corporate missions.
Developing Uncertainty Leadership
Historically, each style of leadership defined certainty in its most advantageous way.
In the command-and-control style, uncertainty is assumed away.
In empowered or participative leadership, the leader has a vision of a future or a vision of what’s to be done, but can’t do it all by herself. The job may be too large, or she lacks technical expertise. Either way, the leader needs committed followers.
In learning leadership and with today’s evolving styles, nobody knows for sure and the leader is the designated arbiter, creating the environment for everyone to maximize their potential to perform — this presupposes an environment where learning is the coin of the realm. The successful leader enthuses all to experiment with new situations and information. Fail if you have to, because we’ll all learn from that too.
Actor and film director Orson Welles was a leader of arguably great success who relished what “might happen.” He famously inspired and flabbergasted colleagues with his quest for “divine accidents,” ad libs and unintentional flubs that looked more authentic than scripted action.
The leader is there to remind us how much fun we’re having as we fail!
But it’s not always fun. Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg has been summoned by heads of state over issues of privacy and espionage, and much of his response has been vague. He can’t really be blamed for this because no one predicted some of the outcomes.
At this writing, it’s not clear where Facebook is headed. A medium has been born from our hungry vanity to tell the world everything about our lives. What will it become? Will it survive? How can business take advantage — hopefully in an ethical manner?
Still, it all comes back to the crisis and opportunity of uncertainty and to leaders who don’t get hung up on having to be the source of all the answers, who can inspire organizations to observe, experiment and learn.
To facilitate this, Binney advocates more freedom and space in the workplace. In his experience, uncertainty creates chaos, but the answer is not to inflict order. Too often, when bosses feel the pressures of ambiguity, they want to calm things down with plans, strategies and measurements. It’s time to rethink this.
“One leader of a health system was interested in finding new ways of working with patients and developing the service,” Binney said. “The idea we offered her was to say, ‘If you’re going to develop the organization, you need to have some sort of open space where people can come up with new ideas.’ You can’t put it all in the plan. Because if you try to get it all in the plan, things won’t happen.
“You have to pose questions to people,” Binney said. “This is the issue we’re faced with, now what can we do about it?”
It was a huge shift for this leader to realize she needed to provide some free space in which people can develop themselves and their ideas for the future.
Mastering Uncertainty as an Organizational Effort
At the individual level there are instruments that accurately assess a person’s degree of comfort with uncertain situations. Our own studies and others suggest that those who are more comfortable with uncertainty are more likely to be high performers.
We have also seen that a person can develop their ability to grapple with the unknown more effectively.
“CLOs have to be prepared to offer learning experiences that give the conditions for learners to be agile, engage in sense-making and activate purpose,” Stokes said. “This means having learning experiences that are integral to the employee’s life and not just one-off training events. It’s helping leaders have good insight into both their strengths and their areas for development.
“This comes from multiple means, including formal learning programs, online learning, just-in-time content, coaching, collaborative learning experiences, and allowing learners alternate experiences,” Stokes continued. “For example, giving sabbaticals so employees can go and work at a not-for-profit or work in an area that is seemingly unrelated to the job but where they will stretch themselves as leaders and see innovative connections.”
At the organizational level, Stokes suggests creating learning ecosystems. Here, participants are allowed to draw from and connect with a variety of resources where they can benefit and learn while they also contribute to the learning and growth of others in the ecosystem.
Similarly, Binney says workers need to be provided space (time and place) in which to share and discuss the ways uncertainty may be negatively affecting their efforts. In this same space, they can collaborate on solutions, even if they’re operating in parallel to the formal processes of the company.
Binney points to the classic example of IBM developing the first personal computers. The leaders knew they couldn’t develop something so innovative through the usual channels, so they had the foresight to set up a skunkworks.
“Watch the patterns,” Binney said. “What people crave are thinking spaces. Set up some of those thinking spaces within the organization. Support peer learning and regular groups where people can think.”
Thinking spaces don’t have to design the next big thing, but they can help people do their jobs better. They can cover a range of issues like information overload, helping people say no and better management of email and other forms of connectivity. It’s a grassroots approach to managing uncertainty.
“I see it as a different pattern of personal leadership development rooted in realities rather than an idealized approach of how I can deal with uncertainty,” Binney said. This can come through the classroom but absolutely must be applied on the job as well.
Making an organization become “good with uncertainty” can yield strategically competitive results, so it may take more top management buy-in than other learning initiatives. It’s time to fundamentally change the way people approach their work. If my organization can learn faster than your organization, we will beat you in the marketplace.
Boldly Go Forth
Learning — as a corporate function — owns this mission.
To boldly go and master the perpetual uncertainty in our world requires a two-prong approach: (1) Drive development to help individuals manage uncertainty so they can perform better and become more agile, entrepreneurial and creative. (2) Liberate the organization to benefit from uncertainty — what better time to discover a new competitive advantage?
It’s up to learning leaders to create an environment that’s less constricted by processes and channels and that rewards collaboration and creativity.