Uncertainty Makes Us Deeply Uncomfortable

As a rule, we have a deeply complicated and ambivalent relationship with uncertainty. Which is awkward, because by its nature uncertainty is complicated and ambivalent. So that makes for a whole new level of complication.

We live in a complex world, and arguably that’s just ramping up in excitement and intensity. Previous models of how things work no longer apply. Our ability to see into the future, while never good, has become that much more constrained.

This has a profound effect on how we function as human beings. We desire certainty, rationality and order in a world that doesn’t offer much of any of these. The driving force of nature is entropy, not order. Natural forces break down and decay, while we strive for clean, neat and tidy.

It would be tempting to throw up our hands, give up and spend the rest of our lives in a quiet room watching movies (Howard Hughes would have been the ultimate Netflix binger). If the forces of nature keep bashing away at our attempts for structure, why even bother?

Success requires finding a balance between absolute control (an impossibly unattainable goal) and absolute entropy (a fatalist and likely fatal proposition). Between those two points is a pretty broad swath of space to work with, though, so one would imagine there is a reasonable probability of success.

The essential challenge is how we think about uncertainty, and uncertain situations. The natural tendency is to treat anything uncertain as a risk, and to manage it accordingly. In risk management, we ideally evaluate probability and magnitude of impact, evaluate consequences and develop mitigation strategies. Although in reality we very often don’t even do that, at least not as formally as rational approaches to risk management would recommend.

What risk management primarily deals with, however, is what are often referred to as the “known unknowns.” In other words, the things that we know we don’t know. But because they are known, they are measurable, they can be estimated and they can be planned for.

Where uncertainty lives is more in the realm of the “unknown unknowns.” Those things that we don’t know we don’t know. Being honest, however, I have always found this phrase troubling and annoying. It implies that what we are dealing with is essentially unknowable and fundamentally beyond our grasp. It brings to mind maps of the early age of exploration, where areas beyond what explored were labelled, “Here there be monsters.”

What is uncertain isn’t strictly an unknown unknown, if only because we have started to contemplate it. We have begun to address and have a conversation about it. We can sense the essence of the problem, even if we can’t fully get our arms around it. It is not possible (at least currently) to assess probability or fully appreciate impact, so it doesn’t fall into the realm of risk management. There is much that we don’t know or comprehend, but at the same time we are at least thinking about it. It is less an “unknown unknown” than a “knowable unknown.” But knowing more is going to take some work.

Addressing and managing in the face of uncertainty requires a tolerance for ambiguity. It requires recognizing that the normal laws of cause and effect do not apply (and may never be fully brought to bear). We can probe for relationships and responses that help us better understand the problem, but that’s not to say we will necessarily build a mechanistic view of the solution. And even if we do ultimately reduce uncertainty into the world of the known unknowns, it will require time, effort, patience and many more ratholes, detours, dead-ends and failures than we may necessarily want or find comfortable.

This isn’t to say that uncertainty isn’t manageable, or that we cannot successfully manage in the face of uncertainty. But it requires a different mindset and a different way of thinking. It requires patience, tolerance and willingness to hold open questions rather than forcing their resolution. It involves being highly tolerant of a world of gray, rather the high relief of black and white.

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