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Thought Leadership Articles by William Gartner

The Uncertainty of Uncertainty

by William B. Gartner, Bertarelli Foundation Distinguished Professor of Family Entrepreneurship
May 2020

How things have changed in the past three months! I ended the last newsletter (February 2020) with a prediction that I would be writing about the value of tacit knowledge in entrepreneurial families and how entrepreneurial families might capitalize on this knowledge, and, then… the corona virus (SARS-CoV-2) and the coronavirus disease (COVID-19). 

This essay will not be about tacit knowledge. A commentary for another day. Instead, I offer some thoughts on “the uncertainty of uncertainty” and the impossibility of making predictions when the situation is truly “uncertain.” For now, this is where we find ourselves. And, I will offer some suggestions for taking action when we can’t predict the future. 

Because uncertainty is, by definition, uncertain, it means that we can’t predict outcomes.  Otherwise, it wouldn’t be uncertain. There is no way to get around this. That is the uncertainty of uncertainty. Yet, the essential human condition is one of living in expectation (there is a theory on this – “expectancy theory”) and with expectations, then, prediction matters. We may be living in the present, but, every moment we are stepping into the future as we expect to take action based on what we assume the future will be.   

In situations of uncertainty, we simply don’t know what will happen next. How do we know what to do if we can’t predict how our actions will affect our current situation? 

I have seen many articles and essays offering predictions about what the future holds, and, after spending the last two years, off and on, developing working papers on the impossibility of “managing uncertainty ” [as these papers are in various stages of review at academic journals, I can’t post them publicly, but, if you email me (wgartner@babson.edu) I will send you current versions] I can say that most of the literature on “managing uncertainty” comes across as “I told you so.” 

Hindsight can be 100% accurate, so, much of the literature on dealing with uncertainty (such as the crisis we are currently in) tends to take on the musing of “if only they would have done…” As in most of life, we stand by the dictum “Be Prepared” holding that prior preparation can take care of the unexpected. So, “failure to prepare” is hindsight’s answer to crisis. Yes, it is always better to have the right tools, the right resources, and the right preparation ahead of time, before the crisis occurs. And, ideally, families and businesses should and need to prepare for crises before they happen. But, we often don’t have either the right tools or the right capabilities or the right resources at the right time. Indeed, a crisis, is, by definition, a situation in which we are unprepared for what occurred. Otherwise, it wouldn’t be a crisis.   

What makes a crisis, then, is that we prepared for the wrong problem, with the wrong tools and the wrong resources at the wrong time. We needed to be prepared for what we didn’t expect. Certainly, this can be blamed on any number of factors. The more obvious explanation is: a lack of imagination. We didn’t envision the possible future we find ourselves in. But, that is an exercise for a time before the crisis occurred. Again, ideally, one might imagine what one should be prepared for. But, many times, this just isn’t possible. I know that you are familiar with the phrase: Sh*t Happens. The point of the phrase is that crises occur. They are a fixture of existence. We can’t go back and assume we can recreate history, and, by that I mean, try to imagine how, looking forward from the past, we could have seen the future – “if only they would have done…” 

Given that we can’t go back and fix the past (that is, be prepared for a future that we didn’t imagine) what can we do, now, when we are in a crisis – when we are in the uncertainty of uncertainty? Here are a few actions to take, that, while they may appear to be rather simple, can lead to insights for stepping into the future when uncertainty is the primary characteristic of the present moment.  

PAY ATTENTION. In a crisis, things appear grim, and, a natural reaction to a disaster is to ignore critical aspects of the situation. It is difficult to face a crisis when many of the facets of the situation are terrible. Yet, the first action to take in this moment of uncertainty is to take an inventory of one’s circumstances. This is an inherent part of the process of entrepreneurial thought and action. When we start with where we are, with who we know, and, what we can do, we pay attention to the resources that are now at hand as well as the position we are in. I know that this sounds easy to do, but, we devote a substantial amount of time in the learning process at Babson forcing (yes, forcing) students to pay attention. To see what we have is the foundation of the ability to pursue possibilities. When we begin where we are, not where we want to be, we being with the necessary capabilities, resources, and relationships to take action.  

ACCEPT. Whatever one’s circumstances, at this current moment, there are innumerable reasons for why and how the crisis occurred and how it affects us. If we have paid attention (above), then, we not only have sufficient information to move forward, but, we also have a cornucopia of feelings and emotions about what has happened and the difficulties of living in the now. While our emotions can be strong motivators for taking action, I find that they tend to cloud the ability to receive the insights that paying attention can offer. I think it is easy to blame others, get angry, feel hurt, sad and miserable in this current crisis. The impact of the virus has been devastating in so many different ways to our lives and our businesses. The process of acceptance is simply acknowledging what is, rather than desiring what isn’t. If, in paying attention, it is apparent that the business has no cash, then, it has no cash. It would seem obvious that one would be able to act on this fact, but, I have worked with entrepreneurs who have not been able to accept such obvious facts as – you have no money to continue operations, you have three times the inventory necessary to make sales for the next three years (yes, this was an actual situation), your chief financial officer along with your payroll administrator are stealing from you. Acceptance is not ignoring or suppressing the emotions we feel or the facts that confront us. Indeed, it is recognizing that the emotions are there and the situation is, what it is. I am sure you have heard the expression: “burn your boats” (which I don’t advise). There are multiple accounts, from Alexander the Great to Hernán Cortés, of calling on their soldiers and sailors to “burn your boats” to signal that there is no sailing back to where they started, only going forward. I fashion on to the phrase, only because it does speak to the idea of acceptance. “Burn your boats” recognizes that you are where you are, there isn’t a past to sail back to. There is only, now, and, what we can make of it (and I would still keep my boats.)

YES! The centerpiece of the Babson ETA process is: action. Yet, here, in this situation of uncertainty, where there is more fog than visibility, it seems nearly impossible to move forward. I believe many of the clues for what steps to take comes through what has been realized through paying attention and acceptance. Both steps actually reduce some aspects of uncertainty, those aspects that you are aware of (your own situation) and have some control over (your actions and emotions). Yet, there is much in the uncertainty of uncertainty that can’t be answered. 

I believe the key to moving forward, to taking action, is to consider what you are willing to say “yes” to. This is, fundamentally, about what you value and care about. As my students know, I am very enamored with poetry as a way to gain insights into critical issues that we face. One of my favorite poems is my version of a translation of a Buson haiku by the poet Robert Hass:

Chrysanthemum growers
You are slaves
Of the chrysanthemums

If you say “yes” to growing chrysanthemum’s, you have an obligation to plant them, water them, feed them, etc. Otherwise, you aren’t a grower of chrysanthemums. So, in moving forward, the question becomes – what are the chrysanthemum’s in your life? What are you really willing to give yourself to? When you have an answer, or insights into that question, you can begin to move through the fog. It doesn’t guarantee that the direction you go will be “correct,” but it will provide guidance for how the path will emerge once this current crisis is lifted. And, then, one last quotation on the process of saying “yes:”

“This may sound too simple, but is great in consequence. Until one is committed, there is hesitancy, the chance to draw back, always ineffectiveness. Concerning all acts of initiative (and creation), there is one elementary truth the ignorance of which kills countless ideas and splendid plans: that the moment one definitely commits oneself, then providence moves too. A whole stream of events issues from the decision, raising in one's favor all manner of unforeseen incidents, meetings and material assistance, which no man could have dreamt would have come his way. I learned a deep respect for one of Goethe's couplets: Whatever you can do or dream you can, begin it. Boldness has genius, power and magic in it!” (Murray, 1951)

I have no idea about how the future will turn out. But, I do believe that the imagination and initiative of entrepreneurs in this current crisis will make a significant difference in turning things towards the better. I hope you will PAY it forward. And, “good luck” as providence uses it.

Murray, W. H. (1951). The Scottish Himalayan Expedition. London: J. M. Dent & Sons.