This blog post is a brief excerpt from our latest white paper on adapting to uncertainty. The full piece can be found here.
It is no surprise that in the face of today’s constant volatility and uncertainty, agility is frequently cited as one of the most important attributes for leaders to be successful in growing organizations. Yet most managers and leaders have not been prepared or trained for how to deliver this agility, especially in a crisis. It’s one thing to have reactively put things into place in response to a new reality, often with a lag that creates competitive disadvantages. It is another to think about what’s next in the midst of a crisis and stay ahead of change, rather than chasing after it.
Part of the challenge is that your brain is like an anticipation machine, constantly trying to predict the future. When we don’t have a clear picture of what is going to happen, we typically rely on past experience or get lost in imagining a wide array of possible outcomes. Both approaches lead to cognitive overload, distraction and lower productivity – your brain saying “all circuits are busy.” When the outcome doesn’t fit with your mind’s predictive models, it creates a distinct and disconcerting feeling: uncertainty.
This uncertainty is uncomfortable. Neuroscience research done at UCL demonstrated that facing uncertainty can feel scarier than facing actual physical pain. The study tracked how people reacted to being told they would either “definitely” or “probably” receive a painful electric shock. Surprisingly, those who knew they would definitely receive a painful electric shock felt calmer and were less agitated than those who were told they only had a 50% chance of getting the electric shock, simply because they knew what was going to happen.
Another neuroscience study shows that when faced with unpredictability, the best outcomes come from ignoring history- and model-based strategies and embracing a stochastic approach that focuses on adapting to randomness. In other words, in uncertain times, the best results come from breaking free from old ways of thinking and building your agility to adapt, learn and understand.