Who’s afraid of uncertainty?


uncertainty is TOUGH. it makes you feel, well, uncertain, and That’s scary. We ‘re all naturally afraid of uncertainty. In this post, you’ll find some of the most prominent symptoms of uncertainty evading behavior that can hurt innovation.

Probing the unknown

Every time you make a decision, you are, in fact, probing the unknown – or rather, how well your assumptions about the unknown match reality. And: results may vary. That is stressful, not just for your own decisions, but especially if you make decisions that influence a lot of other people.

Maybe you now think: “Wait a minute, taking decisions is easy for me! I have no such fears!”. I know I sometimes feel that way, and it feels great to be certain! Deep down I suspect it is in fact one of the tricks I use to subdue the unknown: pretend it’s not there at all. Which is a problem, since bad things tend to happen if you let it creep up on you. Maybe that’s why they call it ‘dead certain’.

As humans we have many more of such tricks to make the unknown go away, and to feel safe, both individually and in groups. Some are very easy to spot, some are harder. To me, ‘thinking like a designer’ means being aware of these mechanisms, and understanding when they help you, or hurt you.

When trying to create something new, exploring being uncertain needs to become familiar (although it probably still won’t feel good). Understanding when you are subconsciously running away from uncertainty is vital. Learn to control your own uncertainty fight-or-flight response by exposing yourself to small dosages.

recognize uncertainty evasion tactics

In this post, I highlight a number of mechanisms to avoid uncertainty that I see around me – or have fallen victim to myself, with ways to recognize them and work through them into the underlying unknowns. Avoid such mechanisms when you are in a situation where you need to find new options and new ideas!

1. The Narrative Fallacy.

People believe things about the world simply because they make a great story. Not because they are necessarily ‘true’.
Stories – as described in our book – are perhaps the best way for people to share knowledge and perspectives. Since the dawn of humanity we use stories to make sense of the world around us. But, a story has been created, by someone – it has a point. It has an agenda. It is the result of choices, and offers you only one perspective. Every story leaves out a huge amount of information in order to better highlight the part that is important for that story.And this goes for all stories you see around you – the news, commercials, history, your company vision, and even your own personal memories.

The easiest way to see this is if you look at history and history books. These (necessarily) are based on stories – interpretations – that historians create to explain the evidence they have found. They were not there, and they haven’t got all the evidence. Even recent events, in a timeframe where you’d imagine we have all the information, can generate wildly different stories.

Does that mean stories are bad? No, definitely not! They can have a tremendous effect to clarify and explain things and inspire people. But they are never the whole truth – and making decisions based only on a story is not without risk. Sticking to a single story limits your options, not the best thing when you are innovating!

How to recognize it:
When there is a single ‘official’ story as to how something happened, or a single ‘correct’ vision.

What to do about it:
If you look around you, what kind of stories do people tell each other and themselves? What is the reason behind those stories? Are some stories ‘forbidden’? Try to find other perspectives, other parts of the story that were not told. What has been left out? And why? What would happen if you took the opposite perspective?

2. Cargo-cult thinking.

In WWII, remote islands in the pacific became a theatre of war. Vast amounts of military equipment and supplies were dropped in the jungle and shared by soldiers with guides and hosts from the indigenous people, who had never seen such things before. And then, suddenly, they left. To bring back the bounty of goods parachuting from the air, they built fake airfields and runways, lit by signal fires, imitating the behavior of the soldiers. Of course, airdrops never materialized, yet some cargo cults still remain active.

The ‘cargo-cult’ phrase was used to define ‘cargo-cult science’ by physicist Richard Feynman, where research appears on first inspection to be real science, but in fact does not follow the scientific method. It just pretends to be science.

Just in the same way, there is a lot of ‘cargo-cult strategy’. If you follow easy steps X, Y, Z, then your business will be instantly succesful. Believing this certainly reduces immediate feelings of uncertainty. But does it actually give you a better chance of surviving with your business?

How to recognize it:
Cargo cult thinking is a form of thinking where people replicate a symptom in order to bring about an effect. In business, it can usually be seen in logic in the form of :”Business X is successful. Business X has technology Y. If we have technology Y, we will also be successful.” Success is not guaranteed.

What to do about it:
Try to figure out if the symptom that is focused on is the only reason for the apparent success, or that other factors also play a role. And can you find counter examples? What other options do you have?

3. Silver Bullets a.k.a. Snake Oil

People love the quick and easy solution, where belief can supersede the fear of uncertainty. We call this ‘silver bullets’ (since they magically tend to kill Vampires and werewolves, which are bad things) The world is usually not that simple, but to make it seem safe we leave out the hard bits.

How to recognize:
When someone or a group of people says: “That’s the only way to do this!” it usually is not. And when everyone agrees there is only one possible course of action, you might need other options.

What to do about it:

Appoint someone to be Devil’s Advocate – tasked with always coming up with a different plan, especially when everyone agrees. The U.S. Army has formalized this role in their decision making. “When you hear ‘best practices’, run for your lives!”. Something that always worked in the past may not work when the world suddenly changes, or a new problem is encountered.


Survival Bias (Or success bias)

Silver Bullet’s best friend. When something is successful, we want to know why. But as we saw above, success is a story: we don’t really know everything behind that success, only what it appears like from the outside. In trying to understand the reasons for this success we tend to underestimate the number of similar, but failed attempts. Luck has a much greater impact that we want to know. How can you play the game so that you maximize your chances on a lucky outcome?


Being (ir)rational

Rational, logical thinking has a lot of advantages. But there is also a way to abuse it to sweep uncertainty under the rug. Every logical argument is only as good as the facts it is based on. And it is very easy to promote assumptions into facts. It feels safe to create 3 digit precision forecasts – but it is only an extrapolation of what you already think you know. Besides, people are not rational. Pretending that we are won’t help. Irrationality is here to stay, and that is a good thing! Try to be irrational when faced with your next problem.

Also published on Medium.

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.