In uncertainty, what can you control?

In times of uncertainty, our instinct is to predict, but history shows that predicting the future is difficult. The problem goes deeper than prediction; it’s the misconception that prediction equals control. But there’s a more nuanced connection between prediction and control, one that suggests the potential of separating prediction from control and reveals that our inability to predict the distant future can lead to unexpected opportunities and innovation.

Management research has long known this, and one of my colleagues regularly runs the exercise with a group of executives: the greater the uncertainty we feel, the more we tend to reinforce the use of predictive logic. But the great lesson of history, and not just the last three years, is that we are almost incapable of predicting. The more uncertain the situation, the harder it is to predict. The biggest changes have rarely been predicted, and the predicted changes have rarely happened. This is true on a smaller scale, as many business leaders spend weeks making their annual forecasts, which are often contradicted by the facts. Reinforcing a predictive posture in the face of uncertainty is, in a sense, a managerial version of Animal Farm: when our system doesn’t work, we try to “work harder”.

But the problem goes deeper than an inherent inability to predict. Only prediction, we believe, allows for control, but control over what? It is never clear. In any case, one does not control the creation of the future. It’s a bit like going to the movies: you can choose your seat, but you have no control over the movie itself. When we make a prediction, we assume, often without realizing it, that the future is somehow already written and that we cannot influence it. All we can do is predict it as best we can and, once we have done that, chart the best path between now and that future. This is the purpose of a business plan. If I sell toothbrushes, I have to “know” where the toothbrush market is going. I take into account all aspects that I can predict (market evolution, technological changes, regulatory changes, changes in consumer behavior, etc.). Implicitly, I recognize that I have no real power to influence what will happen. I am a “taker” of the future that will happen. Then I ask myself: how can I best benefit through my actions from what will happen? In essence, my approach is: what is the best thing I can do to take advantage of a future that I do not control? This is about the predictable aspects of a future that we cannot control. Prediction, therefore, does not give control, but the impression – or illusion – of control.

Let’s take back control (Caspar David Friedrich – Wanderer above the sea of fog, source: Wikipedia)

Prediction and control: a link to be redefined

Fortunately, the connection between prediction and control is richer than a simple causality. An example from a 2006 article by Rob Wiltbank and colleagues illustrates this. Imagine you are a start-up company that has just developed a new, highly innovative product. Say it’s a green metal chair for which you predict a very large market. You go and present it to a potential customer. After listening to you, the customer says, “Great, but I would prefer it in wood and red”. What do you do? You have four options. The first is to adapt. After all, the customer is king! You thought the future was green metal chairs, but your customer tells you it’s actually red wood chairs. The second option is to forget about that potential customer and find another one, staying in your predictive paradigm. You don’t change your prediction of the future, you just change the customer; this is called segmentation. The third option is to persist and try to convince the customer that they are wrong and that the future is indeed green metal chairs. You stay in a predictive paradigm, but you also try to make your prediction come true. You add a dimension of control to your prediction; that’s the visionary paradigm. The fourth option is to sit down with the customer to discuss the chair and define the type of chair you can create together. After all, neither you nor they know what the future of chairs will look like. The agreement is simply to define what is acceptable to you and them for the chair you will make together. The agreement is only about that chair. It does not presuppose anything about the future of chairs in general. It is therefore a very short-term, “next step” agreement, and is completely non-predictive. Once the chair is made, you can co-create a new chair with the same client, or take the same approach with another client. In this way, you co-create the future from short term to short term. In other words, by co-creating with a stakeholder, you gain the ability to control the very short term, which eliminates the need to predict the long term. To move forward in the uncertainty of the chair world, you no longer need to predict, you just need to agree with someone. So we see in this example that we can perfectly decouple prediction and control. When I am in control, I no longer need to predict the next move. This approach is called effectuation.

So the inability to predict the future is not bad news. The absence of long-term prediction not only avoids misdirection, but also leaves open the possibility of unexpected opportunities. The history of innovation is replete with examples of surprises. The point, then, is not to abandon prediction by resorting to an inferior approach, but to recognize that prediction is not only unnecessary, but can be counterproductive. It locks the innovator into a kind of innovation tunnel, designed as a big bet where it’s hit or miss. A non-predictive, step-by-step approach, where the whole is rethought at each step, is much more robust and creative.

This notion of control, especially when it is based on co-creation, i.e. when it includes a social dimension, highlights an alternative view to uncertainty as an anxiety-provoking situation, that of uncertainty as a source of opportunity and innovation. Linking the notion of control with that of creativity is not as paradoxical as it sounds: it is a matter of identifying a small space in which one can act concretely, rather than dreaming of a large space in which one can only hope that those who have created it will leave one a small space. In the face of uncertainty, the right question to ask is not “what will happen?” but “what can I do now?” and, more importantly, “with whom can I do it?”

Embracing uncertainty as an opportunity for creativity and innovation, rather than relying solely on predictions, allows us to adapt effectively, collaborate, and shape our path forward in an ever-changing world.

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