4. The Uncertainties in the Mundane, Ordinary and Routine


One way we differentiate risk from uncertainty is the knowledge we have about an event. The more knowledge the more risk like it is. Yet, it is possible to know a lot about something and still have uncertainty with it. How is this possible? Two reasons: one, we do not have total knowledge on nearly anything, most often because of the complexities and unknowns surrounding the context of anyone thing; two, because of our al too common reactions to that which is familiar to us, we get sloppy, we lose attentiveness, etc.

This post will elaborate further and more importantly suggest some very common and useful approaches to minimizing or at least moderating the exposure to uncertainties in these the familiar situations.

Events take place within a context. This context enables events to occur and shapes their significance and impact. We often consider the contexts of events as systems. Using the system frame of reference for uncertain and risk like events (U&r) is very useful.

Simple isolated systems are the easiest to understand. They are also the most risk like because we often learn almost all there is to learn about them. Yet most most systems that we live in and around are not so simple in at least one regard: they are not isolated from broader contexts or adjacent systems. So things can impact other things that in turn impact other things and so on.

Yet we live with this incredible interlacing of systems quite successfully by ignoring most of it. Why? Because, in many cases there is no discernible reason to pay attention to the multitude when we learn that only somethings show themselves to be most relevant. Secondly, we do not have the cognitive, conceptual or processing capacity to consider a multitude of things at any one time. Third, timeliness of action is a factor, ponder too long and you can lose out from the delay.

We are highly fortunate in that the universe we live in is in so many ways regular, consistent, and hence oriented to routines. BUT,”in so many ways” is not to say always (in every case or over time). The implications in this line of reasoning is that uncertainty can be part of the routine, mundane and ordinary (considered routine from this point on) because of the inherent variability of outcomes that come from interactions with adjacent systems.

Event the prosaic coin toss which is most often used to demonstrate so many statistical properties and our sense of risk is open to adjacent systems interactions. The minting process (a system) may make some coins different from one another in terms of weight distribution. Different people doing the tossing may influence how the coin will land based on how they hold it and toss it. Air currents and winds may have an influence. A running dog passing by that bumps the coin on its way down could be a factor. The very nature of the surface that the coin lands on could be influential, even enabling it to land and stay on its edge. The only way to make the con toss a truly simple and isolated system is to conduct the tosses within laboratory settings. The events of life rarely ever mirror laboratory settings, even the most routine ones.

So the first practical tool in dealing with uncertainty in the routine is to have appreciation on which adjacent influencing systems are themselves open to variability. This is why we have monitoring schemes in man aspects of our lives. Watch this and we have some indication that something else over there might be altered. Engineers will monitor weakened mountain faces for slides, which if they occur could imperil a roadway or reservoir (both of which are serious public safety concerns).

Some systems have variability under use. Bridges are an example. So engineers build in factors of safety in these structures load bearing and use capacities.

Some systems are so much part of our lives (hence the ultimate in routine) that any disruption would be impactful even harmful. In these situations we build in redundancies. There is an irony here:

Just because something is routine does not make it any less important or curial to our lives. In fact we often make the crucial as routine as possible because variability is often the cause of our concern.

How much influence an adjacent system has on our routine system before it becomes a matter of concern of course varies. The key for us is in those crucial routine systems we are going be most concerned about the least change that matters. If we are not particularly attentive to adjacencies, we can miss the nuanced but instrumental shifts.

The upside of being savvy about the impacts of adjacencies is we not only can get lead time for problem avoidance, BUT, also lead time for taking advantages of opportunities. Sometimes the difference between loss and gain is having lead time and knowing how to make use of it.

So creating routine within those parts of our lives that benefit the most from it is useful to understand. But what is the dark side of the force in routines?

The dark side of routine which reintroduces U&r into our lives is the contempt response. Routines by their very nature allow us to minimize the use of conscious cognitive energy so that we can redirect it towards the less routine. We learn to ride a bicycle and drive a car. We learn to automate our riding driving so they do not require constant conscious cognitive effort. Supposedly we can use this freed up cognitive capacity to monitor the adjacent road conditions (i.e., the things that have more variability within them). Yet many of us have strong habits on how we ride and drive, same times and routes everyday. Hence our commutes become routines and we run the real risk (yes risk as it almost always happens) of not paying attention to adjacent traffic and route conditions. I suspect many of us have experienced the situation where we realize after we got to work that we have no recollection of the commute itself. How many of us have suddenly found ourselves in a near miss situation?

This phenomena is an important concern in many roles: driving, flying, monitoring control boards, security, etc. where the repeated regularity of what is “not happening” encourages us to go blind, deaf and unresponsive to adjacency changes. Even in occupations that have high levels of personal safety exposure, routine activities (e.g., maintenance) can expose people to shifting adjacencies by making boredom very easy.

The second practical tool is of course that of “tail board” like actions before embarking on a task. Tailboards achieve at least the following crucial outcomes:

  • a review and clear understanding on what is to be achieved and how it will be done
  • a review and clear understanding on what are the issues that can affect starting and continuing the activity
  • a clear understanding on what to pay attention to so we can stop or change what we are doing in time
  • a clear understanding on how to call attention/timeout  if the situation begins to show unexpected/undesired changes

So how do I do a tailboard when I get into my car this morning?

  • review conditions we know are going to be different than normal today and how you will adjust to them
  • review where you have noticed changes or differences in your route from yesterday and how you will be alert and adjust to them
  • review what poor habits you exhibited the last few days and how you will overcome them today
  • remember to pat yourself on the back when you get to work/home that you did the above actions.

Near misses are a blessing. You were lucky enough to get away with that which you should not have. A near miss doesn’t even have to be in the activity itself. a near miss while sawing some wood can be used to help you be more alert when you drive.

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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.
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