June 30, 2016

The only thing certain – is uncertainty

One hundred per cent certainty is hard to come by, but it’s what some people want when they have to make a difficult decision. Pushing and waiting for that 100% certainty can lead to decision-making paralysis and affect people’s ability to take action when action needs to be taken. So says, David Kenney in his TEDxTalk ‘Act certainly on uncertainty’.

Uncertainty is a fact of life these days. We live in a VUCA (volatile, uncertain, complex and ambiguous), something that we are acutely aware of at the moment in the UK, in the wake of the EU referendum and the mass uncertainty following June 24th’s results.

Politics can change very quickly, business forces can change very quickly, the financial markets can be very volatile, even the weather has become more unpredictable…The list goes on.

This means that organisations, politicians, the workforce, HR – everyone in fact – needs to be able to deal with uncertainty. Kenney makes some interesting points about certainty, uncertainty and probability in his TEDx talk. What does Kenney know about these issues? He is the CEO of The Weather Company, a weather forecasting and information technology organisation, an IBM subsidiary, that helps businesses and governments make decisions based on probabilities – not certainties – every day.

Kenney talks about the fact that we have more and more data coming at us all of the time and it is getting more and more accurate. As a result, we can make better forecasts and predictions and make decisions based on those forecasts and predictions. However, not only can those forecasts and predictions sometimes be wrong, but waiting for 100% certainty can mean that organisations leave it too late to take the decisions that need to be made.

Kenney gives an example of this and given his job, it is a weather-based example. On January 23rd 2014, The Weather Company predicted that there would be significant amounts of ice in Atlanta in the US, something that was rare in the area. By January 29, when that prediction became a reality, the probability had been given as almost 90%. But, those responsible for acting in such situations – governors, the mayor, school principals, the National Guard – were all paralysed by the 10% possibility that it wouldn’t happen and took no action until snow fell and ice started forming. Chaos ensued with thousands of people then stuck in their vehicles for 24 hours. Those officials had been, as Kenney said: “waiting for the perfect answer, waiting for 100% certainty. And when you waited for 100% certainty, it was far too late.”

However, as Kenney says, organisations can’t afford to be paralysed in action and speech, waiting for 100% certainty over what will happen in the next few weeks, months or years. Business, leaders, HR and employees need to be able to deal with uncertainty, make plans based on probabilities and be prepared for the unknown, for the unexpected.

After all, as Bob Johansen, forecaster at the Institute for the Future, said in his talk ‘Undertanding the VUCA world’, “It’s not going to get better. It’s not going to get calmer. It’s going to get more VUCA”.

Note: TEDx Talks are independently organised events, spin offs of the more well known TED talks.