OD Concept of Uncertainty and Risk: Taking Issue with “ignoring what we have no control over”


In a recent post (OD Concept of Uncertainty and Risk – the limits of human understandability) I made the following observation:

From an OD perspective, what does incoherence and complexity mean to us?

I am still attracted to the saying often accredited to Alcohol Anonymous: “Change what you have control over and ignore what you can’t and have the wisdom to know the difference.” (I apologize for any error I have committed here).

At the time I realized I was making significant self limiting decision, one that in matters of personal importance I would never make. This post explores this enhanced perspective.

For me the notion of what is controllable is closely related to my concept of uncertainty: our limits of knowability about a given situation. When we have extremely limited knowledge events will seem to operate from a basis of randomness. We sometimes think of random like situations as gambling like ones. There are mechanically determined odds that are immutable to any amount of knowledge we might have. Will the next coin toss be heads or tails? Will the next card be a ten value one or less? Will the next roll of the dice be a pair of sixes?

Even when we have some opportunity to “game” the gamble (such as effective card counting) the house removes our advantage by frequently changing the deck of cards that is in play.

So we gamble and we don’t have much control, are we totally helpless? Should we then adopt the AA advice above? The answer is of course not so simple. If we have an addiction, the AA advice is imperative. If we are not addicted we can make a series of choices around how much we will play (i.e., a maximum amount we are willing to lose then quitting, the amount we are prepared to be ahead before walking away, etc.

In the areas of strategy, we make choices on how to go forward into the future. We choose to focus on a few things and ignore an infinite number of other things. We understand that high performance has one immutable rule: focus on one thing at a time. Even in the decathlon, where participants  are involved with ten distinct events, there are marked differences in proficiency across the events by each athlete. The goal here is to become good enough in your weaker events so that you don’t lose too much ground overall. What is very interesting though is how this sport is scored: you get points based on how well you do against an event standard. Yes you compete against one another overall, but in each event, it is most important to do your very best even if it not as well another athlete.

Back to the issue of what to ignore.

We need to focus our actions, energy and attention going forward if we are to succeed. It makes sense to focus on what we have the most control on. What do we do about those things we have no/limited control over?

Some we ignore. Some we can get someone else to pay attention to so we do not have to. Some we “park” in that we do not give them any attention except to monitor them. These latter ones we establish monitoring metrics that we call leading indicators.

Done well, leading indicators give us timely heads ups so we are able to pay attention to them when it becomes important to do so.

What about events that we have absolutely no control over, yet if they occur they will have a dramatic effect on our lives, dreams, and circumstances? I would argue that we definitely give them some mind. We at the very least monitor them. This is a prudent navigation like approach. If we are sailing or flying, we should always be monitoring the weather so we have the ability to ensure we will stay safe.

So the AA advice should never be taken as an excuse to just ignore what we don’t have control over. A good friend who is an alcoholic told me that when he was nearing critical moment in his ability to stay sober, he always had a lifeline available: another alcoholic who would attend to him, support him, help him successfully cope with moment of personal difficulty.

There is much in our lives we do not have much if any control (or even influence) over. Yet we must act as if we do if we are to succeed and prosper. We have to do this with our sense of sanity (ignoring while avoiding denial) intact.

This is why I have become fascinated by U&R and how we thrive, not just cope with so much of it in our lives. Being personally and professionally cognizant of our limits should never cause us to gravitate towards despair. Power is a funny notion, what we pair it with is so helpful and empowering:

  • power to …
  • power from …
  • power with …
  • power up/down …
  • etc.
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About 123stilllearning456

As a management consultant I am passionately interested in talent management and risk/uncertainty issues. In the area of talent management I propose that we seek strategies that look beyond the staffing/employee centric frames of reference. I have been frustrated at the "closing down on possibilities" by these more conventional staffing/employee centric approaches. I have been impressed where people have found systematic solutions to their talent management issues by going beyond the conventional approaches. In the area of risk and uncertainty, I am interested in making this topic relevant to more normal decision making situations. My conceptual foundation is to use the micro-economist's fixed/variable cost theme. I also think it is important to look at these issues for people through their emotional and psychological lens. As a premise I think risk and uncertainty only exist where there is a person who cares about possible events and its consequences. Hence, risk and uncertainty are social based concepts (no sentience, no risk and uncertainty). A major influence on my thinking in this area is Nassim Taleb of "Black Swan" fame. This BLOG provides me with an opportunity to express my thoughts on topics that interest me. As this is an online diary, content is more important to me than polish. I apologize if this distracts from readers' enjoyment and learning. Still I find this a useful way to live up to my namesake, learn more from others and hopefully provoke creative thoughts and ideas in others.
This entry was posted in Decison Making, Performance Management, Risk & Uncertainty, Strategy, Values and tagged , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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