When Certainty Becomes Uncertain

Photo by Davide Foti on Unsplash

It is natural to seek certainty and stability, and yet the past 18 months have been anything but. Back in July, we were celebrating a return to normalcy with the much diminished impact of the pandemic. Here we are in September.  The healthcare system is strained to its limits and there is much less certainty about what lays ahead.

What Happened?

Were we celebrating prematurely? Did somebody screw up? The reality is we are living in a highly complex uncertain time. When I use the word complex, I mean a situation which is highly unpredictable. Dave Snowden and Mary Boone created a framework to describe complexity and how it varies from other states. They called it the Cynefin Framework (pronounced Ku-nev-in). Complexity describes a state where many diverse, interconnected variables are at play. What this means in practice is we should expect the unexpected. What worked and held true in the past most likely will not in the future.

This describes the situation we are living with in the pandemic. We are continually surprised by how the situation is changing.  What worked in the past may not in the future. Take New Zealand. It was the role model country early in the pandemic. Lately that thinking has shifted as the country is locked down over one case. Israel achieved very high early vaccination rates but they are seeing an increase in breakthrough cases. In response they’ve started offering third doses of the vaccine. In the US, authorities have decided a third dose is only needed for highly vulnerable groups. And the variations continue.

How Do You Deal With Complexity?

So what does this mean and how do we deal with it going forward? It doesn’t mean all hope is lost. The good news is there are proven ways to navigate complex times. Here are four principles to help you successfully navigate complex times:

  • Be curious. Pay attention to what is going on around you, especially unusual occurrences. They may be signs of what is to come.
  • Try experimenting. The only way to figure out what will and won’t work is to try it. Plan small experiments to see what happens. Set out a simple hypothesis about how things will work out and track what happens. Was it what you expected?
  • Set out directional goals. Avoid the desire to set highly specific goals given the level of uncertainty. Focus on directional goals and adjust as you move forward and learn.
  • Focus on learning.  When things are uncertain, you will be wrong as often as you are right. When things don’t go your way, focus on what you learned. If your goal is to learn, you will never fail.

What is helping you successfully navigate these highly uncertain times?