Uncertainty can be a difficult thing to contend with. For many of us, we don’t like the unknown. We are uncomfortable with loose threads and open questions. We want answers, we want clarity, we want resolution. We can’t not know.
The challenge is that—for many of life’s most important questions—the answer isn’t clear. And very often it will remain unclear for an extended period of time.
On a personal level, we wrestle with the question of where we should go to university. What we should study. What jobs to apply for. What job offers to accept. Who we pursue romantically. Who we ultimately choose as our partner in our journey through life. Rarely, for any of those decisions, is jumping at the first available option the best strategy.
The first available option can be appealing, though. It can feel easy. It gets us to closure. This can—in many circumstances—lead directly to buyer’s remorse; that horrible nagging feeling that if we’d held out for something else, we’d be happier with our choices and their outcomes.
Now, before I continue, a disclaimer: you may have met your partner early in life, fell madly in love on the first date, maintained a relationship from high school through today and have a solid and lasting marriage. To which I say, go you. You are the exception that proves the rule. And you should celebrate that daily.
More often than not, though, we wrestle with not knowing what we are looking for (and just to be clear, I’m moving beyond relationships here to include the broader life choices that we face, consider and ultimately deal with—or avoid). We aren’t sure what we want. We don’t have clarity of what a good outcome looks like. And it takes time to figure that out.
This is especially true of the big, messy, significant, strategic projects that move the needle in our organizations. They are critical. They make a difference. And they have a massive number of moving parts. The complexity of interactions, the variety of possible paths forward and the need for experimentation, adaptation and adjustment mean there is no single, well-defined approach. There is no one, coherent unchanging plan of how to get to the finish line, and wanting differently doesn’t change that.
As an illustration of this, let’s explore a project I was involved in a few years ago. I was helping a team work through a product development process. It was a reinvention not only of the organization’s existing product, but the vision was for a solution that would surpass by a significant margin any comparable product in the marketplace.
While there was a strong vision of what this would do and what it would look like, the larger question was how to get there. If the answer to that was easy, far better competitors would already exist. Coherent vision notwithstanding, there were also significant choices of what the solution would include, how it would be developed, how it would be tested and validated, and ultimately how it would be used.
This meant that there was a lot to work through. Every choice that was considered led to several other implications. Consequences led to considerations led to contingencies. Figuring out the best path forward was an iterative path of questioning, testing, criticizing and finding some consensus about what made sense.
We were close to the end of the first day of a four-day intensive design workshop that was intended to work through some of these questions, at least on an exploratory basis. One of the participants got up, marker in hand, and approached a flip chart. “I really think we need to get some specific action items here.” The emphasis was on getting a definition of the path forward, and the specific steps required.
While I totally understand that motivation and the desire for clarity, this was not a point in the conversation where specifics were possible. There were questions and possibilities. There were not answers and certainties. What needed to be done in terms of work depended entirely on where we went in terms of solution, and that was by no means obvious.
That’s not the first time that I’ve seen a push for closure prematurely. I’m extremely confident that it won’t be the last. The motives for it are understandable and entirely human. Many of us have a congenital aversion to fuzzy, unclear and imprecise situations. They leave us feeling like we are, in the words of one memorable facilitation client, “wanting to crawl out of my skin.”
Some of this is about personality. There are those of us who really, really like solid, black and white answers. We like boundaries, hard-edged lines and well-defined boxes. The more this is true, the more uncomfortable the process of experimentation and exploration is going to be.
Some of this is about being human. When there are questions and unresolved issues, it seems like we aren’t making progress. We feel stuck. Making decisions and committing to a path feels like progress. When we have decided a way forward—no matter how unfounded or inappropriate that path might be—we see it as a gain. Even if that gain is simply movement down an unproductive path that doesn’t produce results.
That’s the problem of the drive for closure. Our insistence on a solution and path is about us being comfortable. Even if the path we are choosing for comfort takes us completely in the wrong direction. Rather than forcing progress, sometimes the best thing that we can do for ourselves is to recognize that the best answer to our current circumstances is “not now.”
Doing this requires recognizing that we have two different thinking modes: divergent and convergent. Divergent is about exploring options; we are deliberately going broad. We are allowing ourselves to open up avenues and expand our sphere of exploration. We are accepting that there are many options, and we are allowing those options to co-exist, without necessarily favouring one over the other.
Convergent thinking is about making choices. We are narrowing down our acceptable options, and determining a way forward. Options no longer co-exist; instead, the are ranked and prioritized. More specifically, we are no longer looking for good options. We are now looking for the best option. We are looking for closure, for certainty, for a direction to follow.
Both modes of thinking are important. We need to explore, and we need to decide. But more significantly, we need to know when exploration is most valued and expansion of options is most desirable. And we need understand when direction and decision are needed, when picking a way forward and following it is the most productive possible outcome.
The problem is that we frequently don’t separate those thinking modes. Instead, we mash them together in a highly uncomfortable and largely inappropriate manner. When we do that, we create fundamental and irreconcilable conflict. This is often what starts the discomfort that leads our brains to wanting clear answers.
A simple thought exercise helps prove this point really well. Think about your answer to this question: “What’s the best restaurant in the city or town that you live in?” On the face of it, that’s a straightforward question. It is one that we might be confronted with on a semi-regular basis. But it’s also an entirely unfair and unreasonable question.
The difficulties inherent in deciding ‘best restaurant’ are rooted in the fact that the question requires divergent and convergent thinking at the same time. We need to think about all of the restaurants that come to mind, imagine criteria that might constitute ‘best,’ evaluate those restaurants against the criteria that we devise, and finally come up with a single answer. Somewhere along this path, our brains often short-circuit, and default to the first restaurant that we can think of where we had an enjoyable meal.
A far more fair and humane approach to this line of questioning is to break the initial question into multi-part segments. Start with, “What are really good local restaurants?” Follow that with, “Why do you think those are good restaurants?” And finally, finish off with, “Based upon this criterion, which of those is the best restaurant?”
What we are essentially doing in posing those questions is separating out our thinking process. First, we engage in divergent thinking. Then we interrogate and question the criteria that were employed in engaging in divergent thinking. From there, we can begin the process of convergent thinking; of focussing on a specific choice that makes sense for us.
In pushing for closure, there are two things that we routinely do wrong in balancing these modes. First, we try to get to convergent too fast. We want an answer. And so we force ourselves through a passing semblance of divergent thinking so that we can get to the ‘good stuff.’ We can start actually making choices. Whether or not those choices or reasonable, viable, logical or sustainable.
The larger problem is that we pretend these thinking modes are sequential and linear. Even where we allow for the need to go broad first before we narrow down on specific choices, there is often a presumption that breadth gives us options, criteria are self-evident and choices will fall out readily.
Real life is nowhere near as clean, clear or tidy. We diverge. We try to converge. We hit a roadblock. We go back to divergence. We try again. That may work better, and it may not. We take a step forward, we take two steps back. We deke sideways. And we try again. And again. And again.
What drives all of this is principles, values and success criteria. These are the real basis of how you manage an uncertain, complex and difficult project. It means that you need to take the time to define what those are, what they look like and how you will know whether they are—or are not—being met.
The cycle of divergence and convergence then evolves to something more iterative and cyclical. We engage in divergent thinking to generate options. When a particular option seems viable, we start to pursue it. Along the way, we continually test it against our principles and success criteria. When (not if) those are compromised, that’s a cue to once again broaden out our options. And then we try again.
Real innovation—and real progress—is not linear. We try, we experiment, we fail, we learn and we adapt. We broaden our options when the ones on the table don’t work for us. We start narrowing when we find something promising. And we broaden again when we discover that the path we were following doesn’t lead us where we had hoped.
Is this repetitive? Unquestionably so. Is it necessary? Absolutely yes. The only way to move through complexity is trying and course-correcting. And the only way to course-correct is to know what we care about. This isn’t about spinning our wheels. It is about testing, discovering, adapting and applying. If we aren’t willing to do that, then we won’t get results that matter.
As Thomas Edison is quoted as saying: “Results! Why, man, I have gotten a lot of results. I know several thousand things that won’t work.”