Experiencing uncertainty

I was working with a group of managers and we had been discussing how a lot of managerial work is about dealing with uncertainty. Things don’t work

questionout quite how you planned, surprises come out of left field, and your boss, or the organisation with which you are working closely, has just decided that something else is now a priority. What you came in to do in the morning has somehow gone off course by the afternoon, but you’re still responsible for your first priority. This was the link I had been making previously to the complexity sciences: I had been arguing that small changes can amplify into big differences, and social life arises in the interplay of differing intentions. But how do you know how to respond and what to pay attention to?

I suggested that we might work together with uncertainty with the group as an experiment the next morning, if they were up for it. We would meet with no agenda as such and the only task would be for the 26 of us to sit together in a room for an hour and a half and talk about how we cope with uncertainty, making links with organisational life, and noticing at the same time how we were dealing with the task together as we were dealing with it. I was explicit about the fact that this was a group method developed by the Institute of Group Analysis as a way of paying attention to process from within the process itself. I told them that would participate with them, but that I wouldn’t be in charge. I warned them that they might find it a bit uncomfortable and anxiety provoking, but they were a group of social work managers and no doubt they would have been in situations like this before.

They said they would like to try it.

When we started the next morning we sat together and I briefly reminded them what we had agreed to do. Hardly had I finished speaking before one person had come up with the idea of a round of introductions (26 people, 3 minutes each, that’s almost all the time used up already), and another suggested we make a list of themes and then prioritise and vote on them (this is in a country where there is a lot of devolved democracy and a lot of referenda). Within a minute someone had leapt up to grab a marker pen and started writing down suggestions about what we might talk about.

Suddenly there was a crisis of confidence. The themes that people suggested were quite broad and actually not very related to the theme of dealing with uncertainty that we said we would talk about. The person who wanted a round of introductions lobbied again for his idea, and meanwhile my colleague, with whom I was co-leading the workshop, got caught up in a discussion with another group member because he felt guilty about the fact that a list of participants hadn’t been circulated in advance, for one reason and another, which had contributed to the idea of the round of introductions in the first place. My co-leader was rebuked by another group member for taking up the space of the group. This wasn’t what we had agreed to do.

But what had we agreed to do and what were the outcomes that we were expected to produce? People vied for influence. We were in something of an impasse, with two or three different ideas about how we might proceed, and a certain jockeying for position amongst two or three vocal people.

People then began to look to me, one of the authority figures, to help them out. Wasn’t it a bit of a waste to have me there and not have the benefit of my expertise – perhaps I could just give then another lecture? Perhaps they could abandon this activity altogether and go into small groups and talk about what I had told them yesterday.

I reminded them that we had agreed to stick with this for an hour and a half, I encouraged them not go into small groups and pointed out that we had agreed a task: to talk about, and experience, dealing with uncertainty.

The group descended into silence.

This seemed to me a more measured response to the task we had agreed to undertake, more thoughtful. We sat more or less comfortably in silence for three or four more minutes and then someone began with an observation about how interesting it had been to experience the first twenty minutes where everyone had got caught up in the rush of the moment. Instead of entering gradually into an exploration of what the task might mean and how they might undertake it, they had fallen very quickly into routines that they were already familiar with: flip chart pen-grabbing, list-making, and introducing each other mechanistically. Even the voting was something which was taken for granted as a way of resolving differences in this particular country. I guess that they would have experienced each of these activities in almost every other workshop they had attended.

For the next hour or so group members began to engage much more skilfully with the task, talking about uncertain situations within their organisations, commenting on what they had found easy and difficult. At the same time others were able to make links to what we were doing together in the here and now. There were still some moments of crisis. Is this what they were supposed to be doing? Were they likely to achieve their outcomes? What were their outcomes anyway?

The discussion was very animated and involved almost everyone in the group. During the previous day maybe only six or seven people had spoken. Today, all but three do. People could not help themselves become involved in the discussion. This is something we remark upon – when things matter to us it is hard not to get caught up in the game of organisational life.

One participant remarked upon the fact that the hour and a half has gone very quickly, although they viewed the prospect of that length of session together with others with some trepidation. Another observes that although he championed the idea of formal introductions he was glad that we didn’t proceed with it, since he felt that he got to know other people much better through free association.

A number of things occurred to me after the session which we talked through together later on. Firstly, our existing ways of dealing with what we face in organisations don’t necessarily serve us well in new situations. We are quite likely to fall back on tried and tested routines, but these may or may not be useful when the challenge is different. Secondly, the idea that we form intentions first and then act on them was belied in this particular experiment. Mostly people could not help themselves pitching in, provoked as they were by what was going on around them. They discovered themselves in the act of participation, and sometimes their intervention was a surprise, even to themselves. We found out something that we already knew, that the game of organisational life is very involving, and, as Kierkegaard observed we live forwards and understand backwards. Thirdly, in sustained acts of improvisation and negotiation people can find their way forward if they can live with the anxiety of being together in a group and not knowing the ‘best way’ of proceeding. There is no ‘best way’ only the way that works for this particular group at the time. Fourthly, participants observed that when they were back in their organisations they often pitched into solving problems as though it were obvious what they should do. They spent very little time sitting with the discomfort of not knowing.

This last observation led them to ponder what they might do differently as managers to create more time and space for talking without any particular end in view.




4 thoughts on “Experiencing uncertainty

  1. Nick Luxmoore

    Another really good one, Chris. I do like a story. I don’t like the last sentence, though. It’s unnecessary and risks seeming like an ‘outcome’!


  2. Earl Mardle

    Nice piece, even better work that you could get them to take it on.

    I notice the first few actions were all designed to reduce uncertainty. Introductions allow you to know who must be listened to, deferred, to, ignored etc. Lists distill uncertainty into hard facts (even if they are the wrong facts) against which “progress” or “achievement” can be measured (management is measurement) and voting does the same, once we have a majority we know how the group trends so we can act within that trend to show membership etc.

    The whole process of management is to reduce uncertainty to formulae which can be followed, repeated and signed off. We don’t want to take risks unless we know the outcome is an attempt to delete risk. Its like a rollercoaster ride, the appearance of risk without its threat.

    It is also a lie, there is no reduced risk, it can be shifted with unpredictable outcomes (blowback) but it can’t be changed and it can’t be avoided. In a complex world where the chaotic edges are the only places things CAN happen, especially new things, uncertainty isn’t just a condition to be managed, uncertainty is all we’ve got.


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