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Embracing Uncertainty Published: Sunday, July 4, 2010 8:00 am By: Ramón L. Rivera, President & CEO

Our QBS team has done o good deal of research work on understanding how leaders and employees manage and communicate about uncertainty, trying to answer questions as the following: What strategies do employees and organizations use to manage uncertainty? What are the consequences of those strategies?  How are employee and organizational strategies related? And how will traditional organizational communication practices need to be changed?

Uncertainty plays an important role in all aspects of life.  Ultimately, uncertainty exists when details of situations are complex, unpredictable, or probabilistic; when information is unavailable or inconsistent; or when people feel insecure in their own state of knowledge or the state of knowledge in general (Brashers, 2001).  In other words, uncertainty is a state of doubt about current or future events. Uncertainties happen when individuals are unable to assign meaning to the events or to predict future actions. Therefore, the term organizational uncertainty is misleading - organizations do not feel uncertain, people do (Hatch, 1997).  Furthermore, what affect organizations, is not so much the conditions, as it is people's perceptions of the conditions.

When making decisions, planning events, and interacting with others, people experience uncertainty. Decision alternatives may appear equally attractive or unattractive if people lack the information needed to distinguish them. But reducing uncertainty is only one of an indefinite number if responses to events that are unpredictable. Although people quite often do want to reduce complexity and ambiguity in their lives, perhaps as a prerequisite to decision making, planning, or predicting the behaviors of others, there are other times when uncertainty helps people maintain hope and optimism, or when tasks can be performed despite, or because of uncertainty.

Organizational leaders should do everything in their power to build organizations that embrace uncertainty. They often don't. Why not? The following are some of the reasons why:

Illusion of Control - Artificially ridding organizations off uncertainty often creates an impression of greater control.

Quest for Efficiency - Companies that embrace uncertainty encourage dialogue, tolerate mistakes, and spawn learning. These activities all take time away from the "primary" tasks.

Preserving the "Peace" - Organizations that embrace uncertainty not only tolerate conflict, they encourage it.

Inertia of Tradition - To avoid the discomfort of change and uncertainty, an organization can overly worship past successes, reinforce antiquated perceptions, and unknowingly become more and more dysfunctional.

 Over-dependence on Research Studies - A research study can provide insight into a difficult problem, but sloppy research studies can deceive.

 Over-Reliance on Computer Modeling and Forecasting  - Computer models are always based on assumptions, many of which are arbitrary.

The first challenge leaders face lies in shaping an environment in which the organization not only recognizes uncertainty but actually cultivates it.  They can plant the right seeds by using the following strategies and techniques:

  1. Occasionally "shake the platform."  "Platforms" represent the set of beliefs and practices about "how things are done best around here." Sometimes, in the quest for certainty, groups get a little too comfortable. This is precisely the time to "shake the platform." Consequently employees begin to think about the unknowns, complexities, ambiguities and conflicting perspectives implicit in the status quo.
  2. Challenge existing heuristics or rules-of-thumb.  Organizations, like people, have fairly well developed heuristics designed to reduce complexity. Unfortunately, these rules-of-thumb can lead to systematic thinking errors. Moreover, researchers have also determined that most people are over-confident in estimating the accuracy of their judgments.
  3. Orient organizational identity around its purpose and core competencies not particular products or services.
  4. Monitor the internal and external environment. Perhaps the most fundamental survival skill in an uncertain environment is effectively monitoring changes.
  5. Modify organizational language. How executives talk about things has a powerful way of structuring employees' views of the organization.
  6. Discuss contingencies. It's not always possible to "plan with the end in mind," because executives only have a vague sense of the end point. Instead, when there is uncertainty, we must learn to "plan" with possibilities in mind.
  7. Ask penetrating questions. The right question can unmask artificial certainty.
  8. Experiment.  Experiments are a useful alternative when faced with complexity or the unknown.  The chances are good that the company can learn something and discover a useful principle or rule-of-thumb.

Leaders can no longer ignore uncertainty. The new global marketplace and the growing power of the Internet are just two of the many factors threatening the traditional organizational thinking that focuses on making detailed plans, clearly defining job responsibilities, and meeting carefully established objectives. Perhaps additional insights about managing uncertainty can be gained from looking beyond the expressed language (i.e., definitive vs. tentative) to the underlying issue of how organizations and employees experience, process, and deal with uncertainty.


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