Working In Uncertainty

Illustrative improvements to ways of working
– for an individual


One important way to improve management of risk/uncertainty is to make incremental changes to the way relevant thinking work is done that help you better understand and deal with uncertainty. Exactly what those incremental changes are is up to you and they can be as simple or as complicated as you like, but here are some suggestions to show the sort of thing that will usually be worthwhile.

By considering these examples you should be able to get a sense of how big the opportunities for improvement are for you personally, and for people generally.

More generally, looking at ideas for improvement that others have come up with is one of the best ways to find opportunities for improvement that you can use. Often, it reassures you that ideas you have are good ones.

Getting things done on time

Although this is a very general situation the example I'll focus on here is that of a writing task that has to be completed by a particular date. This is something that affects people in jobs as well as students. Most people recognize the issues.

  • Sometimes it is hard to get started at all, but at other times we get stuck. Often we are stuck because we cannot decide how to structure the report or develop an argument. We have some ideas but we're not sure if any will work.

  • Having decided to leave it until later we end up leaving it until what we think is the last moment. Unfortunately, we often give ourselves too little extra time to cover unforeseen difficulties (e.g. having other things to do, getting stuck, not having information we need) and end up delivering something that's not as good as we wanted.

Doing better than this is not rocket science. Clearly we should be uncertain about how much time to allow to do the work and we need to understand that some decisions about how to write cannot easily be taken by just thinking harder. Here are some simple strategies to deal with uncertainty more effectively and cut down the usual stress and disappointment.

  • Start work as soon as possible with the intention of doing enough to find out what the difficulties are. Then start to think about how much time to spend.

  • If you insist on leaving things to the last minute, make a very generous allowance for unexpected difficulties with the work and also for competing tasks. Make bigger allowances than feels reasonable because we tend to have a bias towards narrow, overly precise estimates of effort.

  • Try to write using familiar structures, so that predictions about what will work are easier.

  • Recognize when you are blocked by indecision and think of ways to explore alternative ideas. For example, try writing the first paragraph, or making an outline to see if it makes sense, or estimating how long each section is likely to be. Carry out those experiments, knowing full well that you might decide to go back and try another approach.

Decision making

By decision making I mean not just the act of choosing, but also the work of developing alternatives to choose from. Many of us spend a lot of time just deciding what to do next; others have that decision made for them and are just trying to keep up.

Our usual bias, as human beings, is towards seeing the future too narrowly. We imagine we are better at predicting the future than we really are. We also tend to think we have more control over what happens than we really have.

Consequently, we tend to rely too much on what we already know, make premature decisions, and occasionally spend far too long looking for solutions in the place we initially thought we would find them.

There are many ways to lessen these problems. Consider these:

  • Take more actions that are in the form of quick yet helpful trials of ideas that might prove valuable.

  • Use more facts to drive our choices of where to look for good solutions. Have good reasons for limiting a search. Avoid making assumptions just out of habit.

  • Think more widely about what could happen using each alternative course of action, and use diagrams and calculations to make judgement more accurate and consistent.

  • Make uncertainty explicit and consider its implications for our decision making and actions.

Being delegated to

Delegation is usually considered from the point of view of the person doing the delegating, but surely more people are delegated to than do delegating. Being delegated to is perhaps what more of us are interested in, so let's start from that point of view.

In some jobs the criteria for good performance are simple, stable, and well understood. If your job is to stack shelves in a supermarket and your boss asks you to take a crate of bread and put it out on the shelves then you probably know exactly what you are supposed to do. What your boss's instructions do not state will have been covered by training, labels, checklists, and so on.

In other jobs there is much more uncertainty to deal with:

  • In some jobs nobody really knows what good performance looks like. There is more than one way to be a top performer, and sometimes what has worked well in the past stops working. Occasionally, nobody knows what works.

  • Naturally, there are also times when it is not clear what your boss would value and his/her views change over time, sometimes unpredictably.

  • You may have multiple bosses, with conflicting views of what is a valuable contribution.

  • You have targets that are not very informative. They are better than nothing, but they only tell you that your boss would value particular levels of performance on particular objectives. How important is each target relative to the others? Most importantly, what about other levels of performance?

  • It may be unclear what you're being asked to do.

  • Perhaps the request does not make much sense, is a bad idea, or tells you to use a method that you know to be a bad one.

  • Perceptions of your performance may be capricious and based on mere impressions that can be misleading.

  • You don't know what you can do, or how to achieve some desired end.

  • Internal politics (including self-serving, even psychopathic behaviour) make a difficult situation even more likely to surprise.

Tactics for dealing with at least some of these include the following.

  • Take notes as your boss gives instructions. Not only does it reduce the chances of your forgetting something, but it makes bosses think more carefully as they speak.

  • Repeat back what you have been asked to do, paraphrasing the instructions, and get confirmation that you seem to have it right.

  • Influence your boss's thinking about what good performance looks like by suggesting criteria initially, and then making further suggestions later as you continue working and revise your views.

  • Highlight uncertainties related to what good performance would be, provide information about them, and highlight learning resulting from your contribution. If an action you have been told to take does not work, at least you can learn something from it and perhaps avoid being asked to do the same thing again!

  • Ask about your boss's values beyond targets. How bad would it be to fall short by 10%? How good would it be to over-achieve by 20%? How important is one objective compared to another?

  • To reduce your boss's reliance on flimsy impressions, regularly report what you have done and what has happened.


Delegation involves uncertainty at every step. Consider the worries in this list:

  • You're often not sure what someone is capable of doing, especially if they haven't done similar work for you before.

  • You're not sure if a task is suitable for delegation. Is it too hard? Could it suddenly get more important and more difficult than it looks at the moment? Will you end up spending so much time on coaching and remediation that you personally don't save any time through delegating?

  • When your helper claims to be confident they can do something, are they being truthful? And even if they are truthful, is their confidence justified?

  • Is your helper's planning adequate? Are they themselves giving enough attention to the uncertainties involved in the task? (For me a red flag is the phrase "Shouldn't be a problem" spoken with breezy self confidence. I agree it shouldn't be a problem, but I'm much more reassured by someone who can at least think of things that might occur and be a challenge.)

  • How are they really getting on? Are their progress reports reliable? Do they even have the competence to know how they're doing?

  • How do they feel about the level of supervision you are using? Do they feel it is too close or too hands off? Are they right, or are they perhaps fuming over the perceived insult of not being trusted to do something that in fact they are not capable of doing alone?

  • How should you appraise their performance? Have they done well or not? How does their performance compare to others? Was the task in fact easier or more difficult than you expected or think it should have been under the circumstances you know about?

Put this way it's a wonder we delegate at all. Techniques to make it all easier and safer include:

  • Moving towards more trusting delegation in small steps.

  • Briefly explaining to the helper that our knowledge of what they can do alone is uncertain so would they please be patient as you move progressively towards more trusting delegation.

  • Asking the helper to talk about the areas of uncertainty they face in trying to do the task, then encouraging and helping them to think these through further. (This is much better than pushing for assurances that everything will be fine, which tends to produce false assurances and block useful thinking.)

  • Reviewing their performance in light of what happened, not just what was anticipated at the start.

  • Observing behaviour as well as results when appraising performance, which helps to deal with the often loose relationship between performance and results.

Resolving disputes

Obviously, many disputes are caused by conflicting interests between two or more people. However, others are caused by, or made worse by, uncertainty. If people disagree it is often because some of them, perhaps all, don't really know. We should take the disagreement as a sign of limited knowledge and tackle it.

A mistake is to assume that this can be solved by just more conversation, and this tends to set off social pressure for consensus that leads to less learning rather than more. Here are some better tactics:

  • Get a clear picture of disagreement and uncertainty by asking people to write down their personal views on an issue before sharing with the rest of a group.

  • Point out the strong chance that disagreement is a sign of the difficulty of the decision and is driven largely by the uncertainty involved.

  • Suggest striving for consensus about what is not well understood.

  • Suggest searching for alternative actions that will cover a variety of possible futures, building perhaps on good ideas in competing positions.

  • Use an external memory (e.g. flip chart or computer screen) to record thinking so that people are not overwhelmed by the diversity of ideas from others, and to help guide thinking towards useful conclusions.

Buying, selling, and negotiating

We usually think of selling as an exercise in persuasion, and this is what a lot of advice on selling focuses on. But the bigger picture is that it's an exercise in resolving uncertainty. Specifically, should the buyer make a deal with the seller and for what? From this point of view, a good seller is one who helps the buyer reach the right decision quickly and efficiently.

If the seller tries to persuade every contact to buy, regardless of their best interests, then the seller is likely to waste a lot of time trying to sell to people who will be hard or impossible to persuade. Unfortunately, the seller doesn't usually know in advance, for certain, who should buy. Both sides face important uncertainty.

Common problems include:

  • The buyer has a narrow perception of what the seller's product or service can do.

  • The seller assumes that the buyer should buy and talks on that basis, but the buyer's view is different and sees this behaviour as classic pushy salesmanship. They buyer is resistant, even rude.

  • The seller states benefits with unwarranted certainty.

  • The seller pushes for a decision but the buyer isn't sure so has to decide against purchase.

  • They buyer is unsure of what to look for and falls back on the obvious criterion — price.

If this is tackled as an exercise in dealing with uncertainty then some useful strategies for the seller become obvious:

  • Start by focusing on, and obtaining more of, the information that is most relevant to deciding if the buyer should buy or not.

  • Try to find out if the buyer would appreciate help developing more knowledgeable criteria, and provide that help if so.

  • Focus on getting the buyer to be appropriately open minded and aware of what is still uncertain.

  • Focus on resolving uncertainty as to what would be the best deal for the buyer. With some products and services this can be quite a design challenge.

  • Prepare to provide objective information the buyer can use in evaluating potential deals.

  • Help the buyer stop evaluation once it is clear that no deal should be made or a deal is clearly the best choice.

  • Ensure that the buyer always has information that allows a correct decision on whether to continue exploring possible deals. Sometimes buyers see no hope of a worthwhile purchase and pull out prematurely.

Similarly, the buyer has some strategies inspired by uncertainty:

  • Start by focusing on, and obtaining more of, the information that is most relevant to deciding if a deal should be made.

  • Let the seller know if help establishing criteria would be welcome.

  • Be open minded about the possibilities of a worthwhile deal being made. Think widely.

  • Focus on resolving uncertainty as to the best deal. Participate in design.

  • Think about what evidence would help with decision making and push the seller for that evidence.

  • Review the decision repeatedly, monitoring the chances of making a worthwhile deal and the chances of finding something better by more searching.

Reducing stress

Some of the links between uncertainty and stress are obvious. In some situations, such as waiting for the results of an examination, it feels like our uncertainty about the results is the direct cause of stressed feelings. Also, if we have failed to think widely and have been caught out by an unexpected turn of events then dealing with that situation can be stressful.

These links are obvious and clearly if we can do things to get more information earlier, to reduce the chances of unpleasant outcomes, and to be more ready for whatever happens, then we should feel less stressed.

However, there is another very powerful link between uncertainty and stress that opens up the possibility of directly cutting stress in our lives. Stress is very often a precautionary physiological reaction to information that indicates an intense physical effort may be needed immediately. As soon as we establish that an intense physical effort is not needed immediately then our stress reduces.

For example, suppose you are racing to finish a vital sales letter in time to catch the last post of the day, which you promised to do. With just 20 minutes to go the printer jams horribly as you try to print your letter. The discovery that you have more to do than you thought is interpreted instantly and instinctively as a sign that an additional effort is needed. This happens before we know what the action is. The human brain evolved in much more dangerous times so it tends to respond to any such signal as if the action might involve running from or fighting with a predator or hostile human. Heart rate and breathing speed up, various stress hormones are released, blood is diverted to muscles and away from the skin and gut, sweating increases, muscles brace for impact. The body prepares to fight or flee, just in case it becomes necessary.

But in the modern world we almost never need to respond with an immediate, intense physical effort. Much more often our efforts involve sitting down, talking, typing, and in this case it is very hard to think of any solution to the printer problem that requires an intense physical effort. True, you might need to run to the post box, but that's later, not now. Right now the printer is the problem and running won't help.

Even if you don't know what the solution to your printer problem is you can still conclude with just a moment's thought that an intense physical effort is not going to be needed and in fact is likely to do more harm than good. Do this and your stress will fall somewhat making it easier to focus on the cerebral problem of working around a jammed printer.

This kind of thinking can be taken much further and can make a huge difference to the level of stress you experience.

Made in England


Words © 2011 Matthew Leitch