Reframing uncertainty: a field guide for challenging times

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For most of us, uncertainty stirs up all kinds of anxiety - from the background hum of low-level worry through to outright existential angst. And right now it seems we’re dealing with it on a completely different scale. But when it comes to dealing with uncertainty, we can be tempted to fall back on familiar methods and playbooks to navigate us through - even when we sense that they haven’t really worked in the past.

In order to discover more effective ways of dealing with uncertainty, we need to rethink our relationship with it.

A good place to start is to recognise that uncertainty is not something we can itemise in order to control it. Many organisations capture uncertainty as a category of risk that is logged on a register for review and reassessment as things inevitably change over time. The process of categorisation, definition and quantification gives us a sense of control, but in reality, of course, it’s not that simple. 

Uncertainty is an ever-changing process that can be navigated more effectively if we give up the idea that it is discrete, definable and under our control. It is not a line-item that can be managed in the same way as time, budget and effort. 

Over the past few years, we’ve been exploring different ways of dealing with uncertainty and have come up with 5 practices that we have found to be quite useful:

1 / Trust your own judgement
2 / Sit with ambiguity
3 / Go under the radar
4 / Experiment and hack
5 / Turn Gollums into Sméagols

Trust your own judgement 

It can be tempting to respond to uncertainty by turning to one of the many existing roadmaps, processes, frameworks and methods that are in common use. Such frameworks are usually presented in a way that encourages us to follow them precisely and exactly in order to achieve the desired outcome. 

However, if you are going to navigate uncertainty by following a design process, it’s best to treat it as a guide only and use your own judgement to assess if the process is actually working in the way you need it to. 

It can be daunting to shift the source of trust away from ‘proven’ methods and processes to ourselves instead; especially when things are chaotic, and the next decision or action is unclear. However, it is only when we learn to trust our own judgement, that we create room to break the rules and turn processes into tools that can work better and harder for us.

“I’m not sure this is working but let’s just trust the process.”

Sit with ambiguity (especially when it’s awkward)

A side effect of trusting your own judgement is that other people will trust it too. However, this is not as desirable as it sounds because it leads to the same issue described in the point above. You don’t want to become the proxy for a trusted process - someone that people seek answers from when they don’t know what to do.

In business, we are conditioned to think that there is usually something (a process) or someone (the boss) that can give us the right answer. When that answer is not immediately clear, the ambiguity can feel awkward and frustrating, and we are tempted to default back to the process or person that seems to know best.

Try and encourage others to trust their own judgement as well. As they say in the classics, there is no silver bullet: maintaining a healthy scepticism for frameworks, processes and people that seem to have a right answer will help us connect with the true source of our creative power. 

Unlocking the potential of individuals and teams in times of uncertainty happens at the mindset, behaviour and cultural level. We need to get comfortable being in that awkward space between not yet knowing, but trusting ourselves enough to assess the situation, and take a good next step, or make a good next decision.

Here are some good opportunities to sit with ambiguity and lean into your own judgement:

  • when you don’t know the answer
  • when you don’t know what to do
  • when you want someone to give you the answer
  • when you would rather follow a process than using your own judgement

Go under the radar

In order to explore options in uncertain times, it can be useful to go under the radar, especially if the organisation is inflexible or overly prescriptive about how things are done. There are usually some ways to bend the rules a little, without breaking them. 

You might like to split a project activity into two streams while keeping each focused on the intended outcome. For example, running two parallel streams of research using different approaches and techniques may yield unexpected and useful new insights.

As designers, innovators and creators, we need to keep evolving our knowledge and practice. We need to regularly reflect on what we do and how we learn in order to understand where we can challenge ourselves. Such self-appraisals often yield new insights and opportunities to help nudge the organisations we work with to better deal with uncertainty. 

Under the radar for new players:

  • Ask for forgiveness, not for permission: take a few calculated risks that you think will help you demonstrate the value of doing things differently.
  • Deflect attention: Deflect attention by describing your experimental activities in boring ways: “we are doing quality assurance and compliance related to zzz initiative - you should join us!”
  • Focus on the outcomes: Communicate the learning and outcomes you achieve rather than the activities that you undertook to get there, to keep the focus on the right thing.

Experiment and hack

We know by now that there is rarely one right way of doing things, it’s all about trusting your own judgement and using the tools available to figure out what works best. While the idea of ‘best practice’ is comforting, it can discourage creativity and innovation. Continuously mixing and mashing different methods helps to empower people, activate their creative problem-solving skills and elevate their capacity to invent and adapt in times of uncertainty. 

Try combining different aspects of these disciplines in new ways:

  • Systems design: zoom out to identify opportunities at a system level to make impactful change.
  • Human-centred design: put people at the core of the design process to understand what matters to them most.
  • Behavioural design: zoom in to an individual level to nudge positive changes in habits and behaviours.
  • Cynefin Framework: Assess the opportunity space and build prototypes that reflect the type of problem you are dealing with.

The main point is to cultivate a ‘hackers mindset’; one that is able to adapt the processes, methods and practices available to achieve desired outcomes. This builds confidence in people and teams to continuously experiment, pivot and adjust to uncertainty in a pragmatic way. 

Turn Gollums into Sméagols

You may have heard of the term ‘imposter syndrome’. And if you have, there’s a good chance that you’ve done some hard work to overcome it or at least keep it in check. Dealing with imposter syndrome is about surfacing and acknowledging the self-doubt, fear, anxiety and vulnerability we have. Shining a light on our fears helps us to understand how they are affecting the way we show up in life and at work. 

In times of chaos, crisis and uncertainty, our ‘imposters’ become more activated and enlivened - so it’s a good bet that right now, they are on high alert!

Our imposters are like our own personal Gollums. Fuelled by fear, they become emboldened to express themselves and can show up in any number of unexpected ways. 

Recently, a couple of members of the MAKE team were getting ready up to run an online workshop only to find that as participants logged on, they had their cameras turned off and could not be swayed to turn them on. The inner Gollums were clearly in charge … “If the camera is off…” they hissed, “…then we aren’t really here….” “…and if we aren’t really here… we don’t have to say anything… or do anything they wants from usss...” As facilitators, this, in turn, bought out or own inner Gollums: “but we spent so much time building our precious workshop, why do they disrespect usss?” 

In such moments, it’s important to stand back and recognise which part of you has taken charge. If we suspect our inner Gollums are expressing themselves too much, try reminding them about the Smeagol they once were! 

It’s hard for creativity, resilience and innovation to thrive in negatively charged conditions. Even though our Gollums are triggered by uncertainly, our Smeagols are in fact much better equipped to deal with it. 

Here are a few tips to keep your imposter in check:

  • Talk about it: Simply acknowledging the existence of your imposter syndrome and sharing it with your work-friends can be a huge relief. We all have it to some extent, so lean into that vulnerability and share your experiences.
  • Vent about it: Be a human being, it’s OK to rant and let off steam about how frustrating things are. Don’t try and fix it, just get it out of your system. Venting can be cathartic and help you find a new way of looking at things.
  • Laugh about it: Humour can help to neutralise the tension that imposter syndrome creates. Personify your imposter and sketch out what it might look like. Invite colleagues to visualise theirs too and imagine them all hanging out together, causing trouble.

A quick recap

Whenever you are dealing with uncertainty, consider these tips as you navigating your way through:

  • Try not to default or defer to other people or processes for the answer.
  • Trust your judgement more than the process in order to discover what works best.
  • Be sceptical about anyone or anything that claims to have the only right answer.
  • Create space for ambiguity and make it OK to not immediately have the answer.
  • Know the rules well enough to bend (but not break) them.
  • Embrace a hackers mindset to tap into your creativity and ingenuity.
  • Make friends with your imposter and turn your Gollums into Smeagols.