To Innovate You Must Live With Uncertainty

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.

Student and teacher of innovation - University of Queensland Business School - links to academic papers, twitter, and so on can be found here.

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10 thoughts on “To Innovate You Must Live With Uncertainty

  1. I wish there was a way to teach this to people going through divorce as it seems to be the knee jerk reaction to go from A-C w/out exploring … just as when you can’t handle the uncertainty of the future in innovative process of expanding a business or just being an entrepreneur, it takes guts to slow down, think it through and go with the creative processes that lead you to greater things. Just my take…

  2. Thanks for the comment Ginger. I agree that going through the convergence-divergence process would probably be useful in that situation as well.

  3. You know, Tim, I was just thinking about the planning stages of community development, and this framework parallels perfectly. In fact, when you think about it, each iteration of this process is akin to an arrow on a compass.

    We are here.
    We want to be there.
    We need to go that way.

    Love it.

    • That’s a good way to think about it Brian. I just spent the morning explaining these drawings to the students, and they seemed to resonate. The iteration is an important point, I think…

  4. Great post, Tim. Really enjoyed reading this. I think the idea that uncertainty and risk are of paramount importance to innovation and progress becomes readily apparent when one realizes that every successful innovation holds within it the seed of the next advancement. That thought alone (for me at least) cuts over-attachment to any “one highly specific idea” at the root. No great idea ever constituted an end-point of advancement; however, great ideas and their implementation always serve as a starting point for future growth and innovation – the precise direction and magnitude of which will always be uncertain at conception. Much more, I think the ability to act comfortably and progress steadily in the face of uncertainty are definite requisites to success in ANY endeavor. And, like you, I think that every innovator and scientist should place this idea at the core of their philosophy. As Richard Feynman said, “We are trying to prove ourselves wrong as quickly as possible, because only in that way can we find progress.”

    • Thanks for the comment Beyon. I agree with what you say – it has the scientific method deeply infused in it, and that is probably an excellent lens through which to view innovation.

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