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Get comfortable with uncertainty

Foresight gives us grey areas, lots of them. And almost nothing significant we want to figure out about the future is definable or predictable enough to sharpen things to a clear black and white. So exploring the future of anything means you have to tolerate uncertainty.

If you’ve found your way to this blog, you may not suffer from discomfort with uncertainty—I hope you don’t. But chances are, some of the people you work with do, and so will others you will encounter along the way. They will (I predict!) either be opposed to the “squishiness” of what you are doing, or they will feel so certain themselves about things, that they won’t like the grey. Quite likely, both those things will be true.
 
You can't let these folks win the arguments: your foresight work can't produce certainty, nor can you let folks tell you that unless you pin things down, what you are doing isn’t valid.
 
So what can you do about this?
 
First, there’s a simple lesson you need to teach and re-teach:
  • We cannot predict the future with certainty
  • There is a range of possibility for any big question or large system you need to explore
  • Exploring that range is what foresight is about, and it’s what makes us able to be ready for uncertain outcomes. We should not pick a future and aim for it–that's too risky, we have to keep our sense of alternative futures open

Second, set expectations early, and remind people about them along the way. Keep your folks aware that you are exploring an uncertain thing, but that they can get value and ultimately be able to make better decisions by understanding more about the future.

Third, in workgroups, discussions, electronic communications, and so on, keep a watch out for “shut down” comments or actions that look to either provide a clear “answer” to the future you’re exploring, or that looks to invalidate your efforts. You will need to respond, in whatever way fits the culture and politics of your organization, but in a way that counters the negative push back you are getting.
 
Fourth, if you can avoid collaborating with folks who want black and white, sharp-line answers, consider doing so, but remember Machiavelli's advice: “keep your friends close, your enemies closer.” Or, put more bluntly by Lyndon Johnson, "
 
"It’s probably better to have [your enemy] inside the tent pissing out, than outside the tent pissing in."
 
It may be better to have these folks on board, where you can try to build their understanding.
 
For more on the grey areas, and alternative futures, see:
 
 
Image: PetroleumJeliffe, via Flickr, cc attribution license
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