The many shapes of Uncertainty


What interests me in the combination of design and business is that both fundamentally deal with uncertainty, but in completely different ways.


In business, uncertainty is everywhere. For a start, just think about the future, our next sale, the competition. A large part of what traditional business does is to remove, reduce and circumvent uncertainty (often called ‘risk’) in order to make a healthy profit. That’s what business does well, and it is by all means a good thing to do in many situations. But not always.

‘Derisking’ can turn into a knee-jerk reaction, where control and certainty are valued over innovation and where processes stifle new ideas. In this world view, any uncertainty is bad. And this can even lead to the situation where false certainty becomes accepted truth. Five year business plans, anyone?

Design takes another approach, trying to use uncertainty as a raw building material for new ideas and new directions, balancing functionality with (informed) risk and uncertainty.

I would love to see that approach take hold in business.

Successful startups already know this: they actively search out the white areas on the map. They know, that that is where the new ideas will come from.

The Golden Circle of Uncertainty

To learn a bit more about this, it is vital to dive into what uncertainty is. Where does it come from? The beginning of that understanding is to appreciate that not all uncertainty is created equal. There are different levels and types of it.

One way of looking at this is using Sinek’s Golden Circle. There is uncertainty about ‘why’, ‘how’ and ‘what’.

  • Uncertainty about what often manifests itself when facts are unclear (or when assumptions are taken as facts). Observing, measuring and experimenting can help reduce and explore this kind of uncertainty in a good way. A bad way of dealing with This kind of uncertainty would be to take the word of an authority as fact, or to assume you already know the truth without checking.
  • Uncertainty about how can be mitigated through prototyping, and using for instance an agile approach as opposed to planning. That way, you have time to find out what the best approach is. The bad habits with this kind of uncertainty are to plan for the best kind of scenario, driving for efficiency while working through unknown territory. Think of over budget software projects here. Doing something for the first time is fundamentally different from doing it the 1000th time, and has a completely different efficiency metric.
  • Uncertainty about why is the third flavor, often overlooked or ignored. This is the uncertainty that makes it impossible to get concensus in a team, or that freezes up a team in indecision. This kind of uncertainty is really killing, and it comes from the inside. The previous two types deal with imperfect knowledge about the outside world, this one is about you. What do you need to know or agree in order to be able to commit your time, energy and resources to a project. A good way to deal with this is to work on your company, team and personal vision, using a vision canvas for instance. A bad way is to remind everyone of responsibilities and obligations and hold them to it, regardless. Learning to recognize this kind of uncertainty and dealing with it is key in any successful design journey.

There is more

So, three kinds of uncertainty to learn about, great! But there is more. So far I wrote about uncertainty that can and needs to be mitigated. Not all uncertainty falls in this bucket.

Sometimes, it is totally okay to keep a source of uncertainty around a little longer, to delay the need to take a decision one way or the other. Great designers are able to do this and work while being able to hold multiple possible perspectives alive in their mind.

To understand this, think of a design process as a series of decisions. Some of these decisions are trivial (for instance a blue or a red bicycle), and will not influence the end result too much, while others are much bigger (creating a bicycle or a car).

Efficiency would suggest to start with the big decisions and leave the smaller ones for later – but you could also try to work the other way around. A designer will probably try to keep the big decisions open as long as possible, without compromising the deadline, thereby allowing himself to make the decision with the maximum of knowledge rather than a guess. And at the same time, strive to explore the grey area around that decision as thoroughly as possible. A designer wil allow for ambiguity.

And if you think about it, it makes sense: the kinds of uncertainty I discussed earlier are about knowing if something is ‘true’ or ‘false’, while this type of uncertainty goes beyond boolean logic. True and False can be decided by applying a metric of some kind. But if you don’t have such a metric yet, that is ambiguity.

What about you?

So the next time you are in an uncertain situation, try to find out why, and if you need to resolve it. Where did it come from?

By looking into it and dealing with it you’ll make sure uncertainty does not become insecurity.

By Erik van der Pluijm - Designer

Erik is founder and creative director at Thirty-X. He is passionate about visual thinking and making complex things simple. He mixes design, code and strategy, using his experience from art and design, artificial intelligence, computer games, and the startup scene.