Working In Uncertainty

Shaping your future


How do you think about choices? Despite all the advice you may have read or heard about having specific objectives and making plans to achieve them you probably don't use that approach very often. In this article I'll explain why your failure to follow this advice consistently is natural and beneficial. Let's start with some examples of decisions where specific objectives have little or no role.

No-downside options

Let's imagine you are faced with a choice between two courses of action, A and B. The consequences of each course of action are uncertain (as so often) but imagine that you consider all the possible consequences of A to be preferable to all the possible consequences of B. More than that, all the possible consequences of A seem to you desirable, while all the possible consequences of B are ones you would like to avoid.

You might face a choice like this if two people each invite you to spend a day with them and you have to choose who to go with, even though no suggestion has been made about where to go or what to do. If you have enjoyed the company of person A and know their interests are similar to yours, but have had a terrible time with person B whose interests are all quite different from yours, then the situation is one with a no-downside option.

Which do you choose? Probably A, even if you have no specific end in mind and no targets. Indeed, would you even be tempted to worry about your end goal or target in this situation? Probably not. Your thinking time would probably be better spent considering how you could most benefit from each of the possible, desirable consequences of choosing A.

This simple example shows that we are happy to pursue a group of attractive, possible futures, even if we do not have a particular preference between them.

Suppressing undesirable futures

Now imagine that you are making a plan but one possible consequence of it is something you would like to avoid. Imagine that there is something easy you can do that will make that consequence much less likely. Would you do it?

For example, imagine that you have agreed to spend the day with someone who is good company but has a strong interest in horse racing that you do not share. You don't want to spend the day at a race track but to avoid this all you have to do is answer the question ‘Where shall we go?’ with the reply ‘Oh, I'm open to suggestions, but just not the races if you don't mind.’

In a situation like this would you take the easy action required to suppress the consequence you would like to avoid? Probably you would.

This example shows that we sometimes decide to take actions that will suppress one or more undesirable possible futures.

Promoting alternative positive futures

Many of the plans we make are attempts to improve our lives compared to what we expect to happen if we just carry on doing what we are doing now. Efforts to get fitter or lose weight are good examples of this, but many business ideas are also initiatives that are trying to break out of the status quo.

So, imagine that you have made such a plan to try to create a positive change. The outcome you have in mind is desirable but, realistically, there is only about a 20% chance of producing it, with an 80% chance of nothing much changing. Now imagine that you have an idea for a simple, easy change to your plan that will promote a second positive change. It's not as desirable as the first, but it is desirable. Modifying your plan means you will have a 20% chance of the first positive change plus a 15% chance of the second positive change, leaving a 65% chance of no real change.

Would you use the modified plan instead? Probably you would. That second change isn't the one you originally had in mind and it's not the best future you think is possible, but by opening up another positive possibility you have shaped a better future for yourself.

Life decisions

In summary, we are happy to promote more than one desirable possible future and of course happy to suppress undesirable futures. Many of life's choices, large and small, have this quality. For example:

  • People often choose subjects at school and university such as mathematics, business studies, and modern languages because they are helpful for a variety of careers, even though they don't know which career they want.

  • Many people choose to go into accountancy after university because it seems like a way into a number of well paid alternative careers, in spite of the fact that most find the work is often boring.

  • Online gamers spend a lot of time building up the strength of their digital characters. They don't usually do this in order to be able to complete a particular mission in future; they just know that lots of positive things are more likely with a strong character and expect benefits across many missions, including missions that have yet to be imagined.

  • Many businesses are dabbling in social networks at the moment without knowing exactly what to expect. They are covering the possibility that there are important benefits in social networking by getting involved and trying to limit the downside by not investing heavily.

Rarely can we make specific, detailed plans designed to get us to one particular future situation, and then carry them out with a reasonable expectation of getting exactly the result we planned. Even on those occasions where we set specific targets, those targets are little more than arbitrary choices between a range of possibilities that might have been just as good for the purpose. Most of the time life makes the targets obsolete almost as soon as we have set them.

We shape our futures rather than always plotting exact routes to exact destinations.

The value of plans

However, plans help, and very often the more specific the plans are the better. How can it be that specific plans are helpful but planning towards one specific target often is not?

One major virtue of specific plans is that we are more likely to act with them. Without specific plans we fail to see the moment to act and instead drift along, just doing the same as we usually do. In a sense, our routines are collections of specific plans that get us to do the same things, day in day out. To change those or do something new or unique we need equally specific plans to over-ride our routines. To get lots of people to carry out a big change (e.g. as a project) we need to get lots of people to make lots of specific plans for themselves to over-ride the tendency to just drift along out of habit.

Good planning

However, effective, specific plans do not have to commit us to a fixed sequence of pre-determined actions. They can be contingent plans. These are plans where the action is taken if a particular situation arises. For example, ‘If the weather forecast for tomorrow is good, then I will call my friend and suggest going for a picnic.’ Put lots of these together and you can make a big plan that copes with lots of possibilities, or even make a new business process.

Plans also do not have to specify all actions. It can be enough to specify the first step if the subsequent steps will follow naturally due to our established routines.

Finally, plans do not have to extend far into the future, and it is a waste to create such plans when uncertainty is high.


In summary, our plans should be contingent, focus on the specific actions that will start us on new paths, and extend only as far into the future as is worthwhile.

Plans should also take into account all future possibilities, not just our favourite, or the most scary. We should prefer plans that promote learning, promote flexibility, promote preferred outcomes, and avert others.

Made in England


Words © 2013 Matthew Leitch