A recent article (Should we take a chance on uncertainty?) in the Vancouver Sun discussed some interesting and illuminating thoughts about uncertainty.
The central thesis of the article suggests that at the end of the day, how we decide on what areas and how much uncertainty we take on in our lives is a matter of values not science or mathematics (probability analyses). The article uses the question of whether there should be an oil pipeline running through northern BC considering the economic benefits against the dangers of pipeline and/or marine bitumen spills. The controversy ranges from “any risk is too much” to “trust us, we can manage the situation in the rare circumstance where a spill occurs”.
The article for me points out that at the heart is the question of how much risk and uncertainty (N.B. these are different concepts and issues) we knowingly and unknowingly take on in our lives is less about either/or, or some calculated probability of occurrence than “comfort level(s)” which are rooted by our values.
Individually, we make these choices daily, almost always without any thought about it: walk across a street between intersections, speed, climb a ladder, eat leftovers, use an axe or other sharp object, marry someone, take the advice of a supposed expert, etc. Furthermore even when we know the probabilities of harmful events, we don’t take them into consideration because: we think we can get away from the consequences (smoking – lung cancer – stop smoking before we get it) or the calculations are not very meaningful to most of us (you will be flooded out of your home from a 1 in a 100 year flood – huh?). Also we are often confused by experts on what is a significant risk based on our questions about the quality of the science (global warming?) the agendas of those exhorting us (big drug companies?, NGOs that want to raise money from us?, lobbyists?, governments that want to pass more laws?). As we have all learned, everyone has an angle, sometimes overt, often covert.
Based on the above, I argue that we continuously live in an uncertain like environment. Uncertainty is the circumstance where our ability to comprehend, know, and understand has severe limits. In other words, we have to make important choices based upon degrees of ignorance. It is one thing to be ignorant and know it, it is perhaps another to be ignorant and deny it. For me the biggest act of denial is to refuse to talk about it and consider it in your important decisions.
OD is a rich field that helps people both individually and in groups come to a choice and figure out how to act successfully on these choices. Yet I see little within the OD field that even acknowledges in any useful way uncertainty. What I do observe is reference to notions such as: ambiguity, complexity, and resilience. Even when they talk about risk, it becomes clear they are confusing risk with uncertainty.
What is limiting with the notion of ambiguity? This concept has as its root the lack of clarity. This can be the function of ignorance and/or poor means of measuring (in the broadest sense of meaning), or even expression. Yet uncertainty and risk need not be based on ambiguity at all. There are any number of situations where we know enough to be clear enough to discern the consequences of an event/action. So ambiguity is insufficiently broad enough notion.
What is limiting about complexity? This concept has as its root the notion of many parts that inter-relate in multi cause and effect ways. Everything becomes a dependent variable in other words. System thinkers note this circumstance. The notion is not useful in the extreme, as we are going to be “frozen in time” until we can figure it all out. In most situations we face, timeliness is clearly a factor. For me, any system thinker who espouses that we need to understand all the ramifications of choices is asking me to at the very least run the risk (yes risk not uncertainty) of being too late. Besides, much of our complexity in our lives is self induced. When we have to hire experts to make sense of what should be straight forward (tax laws, building codes, many other sets of regulations that cross one another up). I would propose that most sources of uncertainty in our lives are socially sourced. AND, somewhere along the line we created, agreed to, or just passively accepted these arrangements. But like ambiguity, there are many uncertain like situations that are not complex at all – it’s just that we don’t see them before hand. So complexity as a notion may confuse to be blind to uncertain events, but the concept is not a replacement notion.
What is limiting about resilience? I guess if only survival and coping is your goal, nothing. But many of us want to do better than that. We want to be able to take advantage of opportunities that arise from uncertainty’s surprises. Resilience will not do it for us if that is our desire. We have to be able to survive AND thrive. Nassim Taleb would call this being anti fragile. My question to those of us in OD who work with clients to develop strategies: “Do you ensure the strategies incorporate the two following corollaries from the need to be more than resilient?”
1. The strategy conspicuously speaks to how we would deal with hardships. This is the resilient aspect.
2. The strategy conspicuously speaks to how we would veer off course if there is a better option out there arising from any surprises. This is the thrive aspect.
My observance is that most strategies (person – organizational) fail one or both the “conspicuousness” tests. In some strategies we can “read into them” how they might respond to either corollary. But, if we live in an uncertain like environment, doesn’t this opaqueness border on being dangerous? At the very least it creates delays for us in responding which means we are doubly exposed: feel more of/longer the adverse consequences; and, the likelihood that we will miss out on any opportunity that has time constraints. Personally, I am saddened to see this self imposed kneecapping on surviving and thriving.
OD practitioners, who understand the concepts of risk and uncertainty as it plays out in our lives (personal, professional, organizational, and societal) and develop decision and action tools to deal with these will have a tremendous competitive advantage for their clients (and themselves as consultants).
What an opportunity!