I’m starting up a couple of live consulting projects with some of our MBA students. Even though we are very early in the projects, they have already reminded me of just how critical it is to develop the ability to live with uncertainty.
This is the fundamental point that Jonathan Fields makes in Uncertainty: Turning Fear and Doubt into Fuel for Brilliance.
Fields contends that you can only do innovative and creative work by learning to live with, or even embrace uncertainty.
For the artist, entrepreneur, or other creator, the outcome-centric approach to visualization that’s most commonly offered can be an exercise in both futility and frustration. Actually, it’s worse. Because if you are someone who’s capable of creating a highly specific definition of your precise outcome in advance and you follow the straightest line to that outcome and remain utterly committed to that vision, you’ll get there faster. But you’ll also increase the likelihood that the very same blinders that send you on a beeline toward your planned outcome will lead you to completely miss a host of unplanned paths and options that, had you been open to seeing them, would have markedly improved your final creation. You’ll get exactly what you wanted, then realize it’s not what it could have been.
… when we eliminate uncertainty, we necessarily eliminate novelty. And novelty is the starting point for creation and innovation. In eliminating uncertainty, we kill our shot at brilliance. We become derivative. All in the name of not having to learn to live with butterflies.
The issue with these projects is that we first have to define the problem that we can try to address, and then we have to come up with some solutions. The big issue is trying to avoid defining the outcome too early in the game, and it’s a real struggle.
One thing that we’ll try to use is the divergence/convergence strategy discussed in Gamestorming: A Playbook for Innovators, Rulebreakers, and Changemakers,which I outlined in more detail previously.
That first figure outlines the general process. Of course, the actual path that you take in problem-solving ends up looking more like this:
If you can’t deal with uncertainty, you end up wanting to jump straight to the last bit – where we have conclusions, decisions and action.
But if you do that, you spend very little time on the first step, where you really explore the range of possible questions and ideas. And you don’t get into the middle bit at all, where you experiment, think, and prototype.
The kicker on these projects is that we have to move through this process twice. First in defining the problem to solve, and then in again in trying to actually solve it. So just when we reach a point of certainty, we’ll be thrown back into uncertainty in the second loop – and this is the real danger area.
Innovation requires uncertainty. Uncertainty is what leads to variation in ideas, and this variety is necessary for finding the best answer to whatever problem you’re trying to solve.
This is why I’ve said that the single most important management skill to develop is a tolerance for ambiguity.
If our students can do that in the course of these projects, then they will be successful.
If you can improve your tolerance for ambiguity, you will be a better innovator too.