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Excelling in times of uncertainty

“If there is one thing that is certain in business, it’s uncertainty” - Stephen Covey

As humans, we don’t cope very well with uncertainty. One of our primary survival mechanisms for dealing with uncertainty is to form stories around events or situations that make them comprehensible for us. If we don’t have all the details, we often simply make assumptions to fill in the gaps so we can move forward. A lot of the time, this is very much a subconscious process.

The trouble is, in making assumptions, we often overlook important influencing factors which might change the course of action we choose to follow. In a business context, this can have huge costs and flow-on implications. This places us in a bind – make assumptions and take a decision which results in a negative outcome, or, spend more time looking for additional information to create increased certainty, staying stuck right where you are in the meantime. The world we live in is fast-pace, so deliberating until you have perfect information is not an option anymore if you want to remain competitive and successful in business. To adapt yourself and learn to thrive in such a world, you must learn to understand and analyse uncertain situations at speed and as a result know when and how to act.

Essentially, we must learn to become comfortable with uncertainty. Uncertainty may arise from volatility, from ambiguity and can also be enhanced when the situation we are trying to understand is complex. Nothing operates in a vacuum, and we often have to juggle many factors to take an appropriate risk-weighted decision. But how to we become comfortable with uncertainty and learn to act on it when it’s in our nature as humans to eliminate it? We can start by bringing consciousness to uncertainty.

When we make subconscious assumptions about a situation, we allow ourselves to be driven by our own bias. This bias might come from out own past experiences, things told to us by colleagues or friends, cultural beliefs, or often even emotional needs, whether those be our own or the perceive needs of another party to the situation. If we act before considering what bias we might be acting on, this can lead to poor decisions being made. By becoming self-aware of what factors influence the decisions we make when faced with uncertainty, we can begin to narrow the scope of possibilities and act in a way which is best for all stakeholders. We can learn where our biggest biases may lie and seek out accountability for our decisions by confirming our thought processes with trusted acquaintances.

In taking action in uncertain times, it’s also important to know that the decision we make can only be informed by the information that was available at the time the decision was made. Life can only be understood fully in reverse, but must be lived going forwards. This means it’s important that when things do go wrong and a poor decision is made, we hold compassion for ourselves or others who were involved in taking certain actions. You can only know what you know at a given point in time and can only act on the best assumptions available at the time.

Reflection is powerful process. We can learn a lot by taking structured time to look backwards and analyse what has happened in the past. To challenge our assumptions in retrospect and determine which principles assumptions fell short and lead to less than ideal outcomes. Or if the situation is reversed – what sound assumptions were used to inform a course of action which turned out favourably? By analysing the past, including both situational aspects and our thought processes, we can improve our judgement for future situations where uncertainty arises and we again need to exercise professional judgement to make a decision in the face of uncertainty.

No one has a crystal ball with which to determine the future. However, we do have the power to bring consciousness and self-awareness to our decision-making processes, as opposed to allowing stories to dictate our decisions. And we can use each situation as a chance to test out our principles for decision-making and whether they need some adaptation for the challenging decisions to be made in the future.

Ready to begin training your ability to make great decisions in uncertain times? You can start by using these simple steps:

  • Challenge your own bias in making decisions – write a list of pros and cons for each possible course of action assist in revealing these biases

  • Know that decisions can only me made using the information which exists at the time – practice compassion for yourself and others when sub-optimal decisions are made

  • Incorporate a more structured practice self-reflection to build your professional judgement muscles – decisions are only as good as the assumptions which supported the process. Taking time to go back and determine why your assumptions fell short allows you to adjust them for the next time and improve your decision-making abilities


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