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It’s Okay Not To Know: 3 Keys to Leveraging Uncertainty In Your Organization

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In every corner of government, we are forced to do more and more with less and less. This might not be so bad if only we had a handle on what we should be doing in the first place!  Yes, in government, as in the private sector, uncertainty is the new normal.  The rules of public policy—whether they center on evidence-based practice or quality requirements or community engagement—change often and in unpredictable ways. What’s more, it’s impossible to predict when or where the next change will emerge.

I’m not trying to scare or depress you.  Uncertainty isn’t “bad.”  It just is…and once we accept that, we can work with it.

In Adaptive Action: Leveraging Uncertainty in You Organization, which I wrote in partnership with Royce Holladay, we explain how organizations can “dance” with uncertainty to improve performance, innovation, satisfaction and efficiency.

Our approach centers on a process, called Adaptive Action, that helps organizations overcome complex challenges. It includes three simple questions:  What? So what? Now what? 

When you are drowning in a sea of chaos, Adaptive Action can be a lifesaver. It helps you tune out the noise and confusion and get focused. It empowers you to map out an intelligent path, even when information and access are limited.

No matter how messy a situation is, you can always say something about what is happening (what?); you can always make some kind of sense of what you see (so what?); and based on those insights, you can always find something useful to do (now what?).  Then, inevitably, the situation shifts, and you begin Adaptive Action again by asking your next what?

Here are three powerful tips to help you use Adaptive Action to leverage uncertainty:

Focus on multiple horizons.  Uncertainty is not equally distributed across time.  The further you look into the future, the less certain you can be about your options for action or their possible effects.  Traditional planning processes lead us to see certainty in the distant future, even when we have to make it up. Adaptive Action gives an alternative. When you feel overwhelmed with uncertainty, focus on what’s near and more clear; pay some attention to what is in the mid-range and somewhat fuzzy; and be aware of things in the distant future (without expecting to have much understanding or influence over them).  Don’t ignore the far away and most confusing, just don’t waste time and energy in trying to predict or control it. 

Know what you know and watch the rest. Even in the most chaotic environment, some things are known, some are unknown, and still others are unknowable. How many hours have you wasted in meetings discussing (yet again) things that were essentially unknowable? In the middle of uncertainty, ask yourself what is known and by whom and get answers to those questions.  Then ask what is yet unknown and engage in a process of discovery. Recognize what is essentially unknowable, and put it on a watch list.  Periodically return to the list of things that used to be unknowable and see if they still are.  This keeps them in your peripheral vision so they don’t sneak up on you and your team, but you don’t waste precious energy on them in the meantime.

Look up, look down, look all around. Change in complex systems happens everywhere and all the time.  If the part of the system you’re looking at is too uncertain to deal with, look somewhere else.  Maybe you can look below or within the usual boundaries; for example, consider what’s happening within, rather than among, regions. Is there something happening at the agency level that can shine a light on the uncertainty of an internal project? Finally, consider what might be happening in other parts of the system. Look around—inside and outside of government—to find a more certain spot where you can connect a lifeline.

Examples are everywhere.  Local social service agencies needed to connect with each other before national patterns of performance could improve.  Lessons from implementation science in education informed work in health care reform. Youth violence in a local context made no sense until it was seen as part of a national pattern.  In all these cases, the path out of uncertainty led away from and then back into the current challenge.

Here’s the bottom line: we can never predict or manage uncertainty out of existence.  We can no longer delude ourselves that we can control it.  Realizing this can be incredibly freeing.   Adaptive Action helps you do the best you can do—and once you’re out from under the burden of trying to predict an unknowable future, the best you can do is probably pretty impressive.

Dr. Glenda Eoyang is the coauthor along with Royce Holladay of Adaptive Action: Leveraging Uncertainty in Your Organization.  She is a pioneer in the field of Human Systems Dynamics (HSD), which she founded. Through the Human Systems Dynamics Institute, Glenda uses her models and methods to help others see patterns in the chaos that surrounds them, understand the patterns in simple and powerful ways, and take practical steps to shift chaos into order. Her clients include 3M, Merrill Lynch, Cargill, The United Methodist Church, Target Stores, W. K. Kellogg Foundation, McKnight Foundation, Gates Foundation, Prevention Institute, social service and high-tech start-ups, and numerous local, state, and federal government agencies.

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