Part 1: A Parable about Uncertainty and Risk – Playing with a visual Metaphor

The next few posts are going to be a synthesis piece of work for me and hopefully of interest and use to the reader.

It is about uncertainty and risk (U&r) through two lens: that of me and you from a person centric view; secondly, through the eyes of OD practioners. If successful, the benefits will include:

  • For you and me: we will have useful ways of understanding and taking personal advantage of U&r as they enter into our lives.
  • For the OD professional, helping our clients imbed U&r into their aspirations and plans, be quick to flag and become attentive when U&r arise, and have useful strategies available to take advantage of these situations (i.e., they are opportunistic)

This series will take the form of a parable that will be based on a visual metaphor theme. Each post will explore the metaphor, tease out  hoped for insights, and end with useful ideas on how we might act (i.e., the story’s moral – non ethical sense). My concept of a parable is:

  • A short simple story from which a moral lesson can be drawn, usually an allegory.
  • To represent by fiction or fable.

The U&r I am taking on with this series of posts, is I am not entirely sure what I will finally get out of it. This is very much a “123stilllearniing456” journey. Any journey is unequal with another in terms of bearing benefits. Another “warning” this story will be quite conceptual at times. But synthesis is an exercise in bringing bits and pieces together into a larger embracing whole – the act of doing this is an exercise in conceptual thinking. I trust the insights and morals will be beneficial enough to keep those who are not as inclined to be conceptual to “hang in there” and be patient with me.

I make one earnest request of all readers: please comment and/or contact me at: with ideas and thoughts on what you would like me to dive into in subsequent posts.

Let us table the first visual form of my metaphor:

U&r Theme 1_NEW

This theme considers U&r through the eyes of an individual person, but it can be easily elevated to the organizational level, and I will do so through examples.

We come into this world and begin to amass a life’s journey of experiences. As our thinking capabilities develop we can learn and make use of these experiences. Over time we are growing this experience base. We learn more and we become more and more capable. The visual shows this growth of “learned from experiences” over time by the enlarging cone as we age.

The jagged and raggedly nature of this growth in learned from experiences and our capabilities to make use of them is mean to illustrate that our personal journeys can take many turns due to varying extraneous circumstances both internal and external. Every journey will be unique in some manner or other, even when we compare our “learnings” with those who have been faced the exact same external circumstances.We notice then when we are in a group that has had the same experience. Listen to how we each recount what we noticed, took as significant or interesting, and the meaning for us. The story of experienced events is the same, yet we live with and through them uniquely. Why?

  • Differences in our past learned from experiences may prompt us to consider present and future events distinctly. For example differences in culture.
  • Individual differences in physical, mental, and emotional makeups shape what we will notice, process and evaluate.
  • Differences in what we are interested in.
  • etc.

Let’s test the above propositions with a mental experiment. Five of us enter into a river with the goal of getting to the other side. Will we travel the exact same path? No (for several reasons). Will we make the same time in the swim (most unlikely). We use different strokes. We have differing cardio and stamina capabilities. We have differing experiences swimming. For reasons like this and how the river’s currents impact these distinctions we will arrive at different points on the bank in space and time. When we recount to each other the crossing experience we will most likely highlight different aspects of our individual journey.

What are the implications for U&r?

  • Our increasing cone of experiences and what we learn from them establishes our current and future risks. Risk is about dealing with future experiences that we have in one form or other have meaningful pasts with. We’ve sewn and experienced this in the past. In future “like” situations we can reasonably assess the threats, their magnitude and our capabilities of how and whether we can dealt with them. Hence, informed caution is possible. Also the specific risks to myself will vary at least somewhat from yours.
  • Everything outside of the growing cone of learned from experiences is uncertainty. That is, that which we do not know anything about (hence, when experienced will be surprising to one degree or other). That which can literally be life threatening because we have no knowledge or even skill at coping with. Again, uncertainty will likely impact us differently (trivial – significant). An image that brought this home for me was to look at a subdivision that had been ravaged by a forest fire. Amongst all the devastation, one house stood unscathed. Same event, varying consequences.

What might these distinctions look like in our river swim example? If we choose to swim the river again, we can use our previous experience to choose how we would do it the same OR differently. This is risk management. If the river seems a little swifter, we can decide whether the current speed is beyond our swimming capabilities or make adjustments to how we will attempt the swim. This is risk management again as we are consider ing the notions of “variance” and “thresholds”. Variances for how to adjust our swim attempt (different stroke, take two rests instead of one). Thresholds as the point for choosing to not attempt the swim. Hear these notions in any discussion about a future course of action, you are listening to a discussion about risk.

Uncertainty? This becomes nuanced and subtle. It is everything outside of our cone of learned from experiences. But this means it is about many possible things that we have literally no awareness about, period. They are invisible. Ah! But, some of them don’t have to be!

Let us look at the river again, can we observe anything that is an indication of something “outside our experience”? The river has chunks of ice floating along, but you have had no experience with winter like conditions. What is the significance to us seeing ice. We did not expect to see it. We do not know what to make of it because we have no experiential reference to make to it either (okay, you’ve read about it in National Geographic). The point is that we sometimes do have clues that something is quite different. We just don’t know what to make of it though.

In situations like business, we sometimes see phenomena that we label as “outliers”.  Events that don’t fit our business model, strategy, marketing, plans and activities. How do we often treat these situations? My observation: We ignore outliers and go about our current business. This is not a criticism it is a circumstance of ignorance (which we all have): what do we do about outliers anyway?

We do this personally, we have biases. They work pretty well for us. We see something that contradicts or conflicts with our bias. What should we do (AND just as importantly, what could we do) about it.

When we are young, virtually everything will be new, novel and often surprising (our cone of learned from experiences is small). As we get older we become competent at some/many things. Surprises are just not as likely to be as welcome. There can be a lot of work (mental, emotional, motor-skill, etc.) to adjust. AND we are just so very busy. Besides, one thing we have all learned as “practical people” pretty good is often more than good enough. Just because we know they are not always right the biases can still have a lot of practical utility.

So what are some of the morals of our parable so far?

  • We increase our competence at having more and more of our lives managed in risk like ways if we encourage ourselves to have growing diverse experiences. These need to be experiences that expose us to surprises not just affirmations of what we already know about.
  • Unless we learn from our experiences they are of no practical value to us, that is, we still live in a place of uncertainty. If we do not have good “making sense of it” skills then we better work with or marry someone who has.
  • The boundary between risk and uncertainty is blurry. We can use our experiences and how well we have learned from them to be observant of possible uncertainty. Uncertainty can sometimes (frequently, almost always???) be overtly hinting at its existence.
  • Our ability to deal successfully with emergent uncertain like events in part is to be self aware of our biases, models, theories, etc. and understand where they can limited and how to sense when those limits have been reached.

Question to be explored next post: Does our learned from experience cone always continue to expand until our death? Why, why not?

QUESTION TO THE READER: Why do I abbreviate uncertainty and risk as “U&r”?



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, Risk & Uncertainty, Strategy, Talent Manangement, Values and tagged . Bookmark the permalink.

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