Trying to like not knowing: on dealing with uncertainty
Author: Sarah James Willcox
Published on February 1, 2019
One of the most challenging things about working in change and project management is helping people at times of uncertainty. There’s a lot of it about at the moment.
Part of the difficulty is that when so much is out of our control we can spend a lot of time developing contingency plans so that we know what course of action to take when we do know something. When we’ve done all that, though, then what? When we’ve done all the planning we can, uncertainty might still remain.
Maybe at times like that, the doing that we need to do is actually to find ways of feeling more comfortable with uncertainty. That’s great in theory of course, but how does it work in practice?
What can we do at times like this? Here’s a list of strategies and exercises that I’m finding helpful at the moment, and I thought I’d share them with you.
- Easiest is to think about what is certain and what we do know right now – even if there’s a group of us, it might take a while to start, but by the end of a seven minute discussion, we’ll have a good list of things we’re sure of that we can keep to look at next time it’s all feeling a bit shaky.
- Remember it won’t always be like this – sometimes it’s helpful to ask if my client’s business is the same as it was a year ago, or six months ago and the answer is nearly always ‘of course not’. If we’re dealing with change, the thing we can be sure of is that things don’t stay the same. And that goes for uncertainty too. Even if it feels like it’s going on for ever, this ‘not knowing’ can’t last.
- Reflecting on decisions made at times of uncertainty can be helpful – when things are in flux, we sometimes take decisions just so that we can be certain about something. I know from my own experience, that times where I have made a decision just so I can be sure that I know what I’m doing next haven’t always turned out to be the wisest.
- That’s not to say all decisions are off, of course – if we need to take action, it can be useful to spend a bit of time finding something that we can take a good decision about.
- Lastly, perhaps it’s time for an uncertainty festival – in a reversal of the first exercise, there are, of course, always things of which we’re not sure: the BBC weather app tells me there’s a 19% chance of rain at 12 today; I’m booked in for a course at the end of February; and I’m planning pizza for tea, but none of those are certain and sure. If a team’s feeling resilient enough we could go all out to find things that we’re really not sure about to remind us that uncertainty is all around us, and it’s not just the big ugly one we’ve been focussing on. The point about this exercise is to remind us that we all deal with a lot of uncertainty all the time. So actually, we must be pretty good at living with it already.
What I am sure of is that these strategies are helping me at the moment, so maybe you’ll find them useful too. Get in touch to let me know how it goes.