In any complex situation—i.e., in most situations—uncertainty is a given and certainty is a danger. Probabilities and surprises rule and possibilities and learning can flourish. So hold plans lightly, engage actively, value diversity, pay attention as things unfold, and nurture resilience and delight in the doorways opened by the unexpected.
Related: 5 Capacitance, 33 Iteration, 44 Power of Listening, 45 Powerful Questions, 53 Safety First, Then Challenge, 62 Universal Intelligence, 64 Using Diversity and Disturbance Creatively
Going deeper …
This is an edited version of the video on this page.
Uncertainty lies at the edge of mystery, of the unknown. I once mostly thought of uncertainty as a negative factor. I thought if we feel like we know things, then we will know how to move ahead, how to function effectively in life, and that people who don’t know fail or die. Knowing has survival value. That fact generates a bias towards feeling certain, latching onto certain data and holding it as “This is what is!” In many situations that works okay, particularly in small or mechanical situations. If something is wrong with your car and you know cars, you know what needs to be fixed and you fix it.
That changes when you start getting into situations that are alive – like a human being, or a classroom, or a community, or a society, or an issue, or into something that’s not alive technically but is complex, like the weather. The weather is where complexity theory first started to form up because a scientist noted that very small changes in initial assumptions made a gigantic difference. This meteorologist was rounding up to four decimal points instead of five decimal points (or something like that) and the results of his weather calculations came out totally different. You’d think such a small change would only cause a small difference. But because of the feedback loops and iterations within weather systems, where conditions each moment influence what happens next which shapes what happens next, and so on, small changes can magnify in those systems and end up being very large. That observation generated a lot of inquiry which stimulated the emerging sciences of chaos and complexity.
It is perhaps wise to start from a place of “We actually don’t know, in any absolute sense. We can learn to be more curious and open and constantly engaging with the realities we’re working with.” The aim is to accept uncertainty and to not stop prematurely. Psychological research shows that certainty is not something that is necessarily attached to information or understanding. It is simply an emotion. You can have an emotion of certainty when you actually are not operating on any data at all. So we can learn to realize that when we feel certain, it is just an emotion, and we can take it with a grain of salt.
It can be dangerous to believe too much in our “certainties”. We are sure to overlook something because we are so focused over here, that we are not seeing what’s over there. Uncertainty is not, “I don’t know anything so I can’t do anything here.” It is simply not having certainty and being flexible in our perceptions of what’s going on, which allows us to continually scan our environment and reflect on what we want and where we’re going. There is a good chance of wise solutions arising out of that kind of mindful approach.
I often say that probabilities and surprises rule. In any complex situation you’re going not to see certain things. Things are going to show up suddenly, sometimes for better, sometimes for worse. Suddenly something happens you didn’t expect – the supposed side effects that are not really side effects; they are just effects that you don’t like or didn’t expect that tend to be there in any situation that contains life.