How Are You Dealing with Uncertainty?

by Pam Fox Rollin, Executive Coach

Connect with Pam: @PamFR

Welcome to the IdeaShape Newsletter archives! We think these ideas on leadership and life have stood the test of time…let us know if you agree.

This post originally appeared in January 2002.

How Are You Dealing with Uncertainty?

In This Post:

The Big Idea, Ideas in Action, Resources, Note from Pam


The Big Idea: How are you dealing with uncertainty?


“Markets that do not exist cannot be analyzed: suppliers and customers must discover them together.”

– Clayton M. Christensen

“… the search for security and certainty is actually an attachment to the known. There’s no evolution in that.”

– Deepak Chopra

“Good judgment comes from experience, and often experience comes from bad judgment.”

– Rita Mae Brown

Uncertainty can be hard to take. Especially when you’re struggling to meet projections or pay rent. Yet, whether you take a business, spiritual, or practical look at it, uncertainty is not only our reality; it’s where the opportunities are. We are all now getting an in-your-face crash course in uncertainty. We can freeze, we can wobble, or we can experiment and evolve. By your actions, what’s your choice?

Ideas in Action: How can you get more out of uncertainty?

1. Scope the uncertainty.
Can you become more clear on what you know for certain, what you suspect may be so, and what’s completely in the fog? Which elements of the last two categories can actually be made clearer with some inquiries or experiments? How much time and money are you willing to invest to reduce the residual uncertainty?

2. Look for unusual angles.
If you start to think your way of looking at your dilemma is the only reasonable grasp of the situation, gather a few fast-on-their-feet friends from varied backgrounds and lines of work. Fasten your seatbelt, and tell them you want to expand radically your perspective on this problem. Invite them to ask questions that challenge your assumptions.

3. Reduce the cost of potential “wrong” choices and take more action.

  • Can I learn from prototyping or piloting this?
  • How fast can we generate feedback, so we can redirect as we learn?
  • Which options can I try at the same time, without scattering my energy?
  • Which courses of action are “robust strategies” (useful no matter which of your most likely scenarios emerge)?
  • How can I demonstrate to my team that thoughtful experiments are more rewarding than heads-down inaction?

4. Get the learning out of failed experiments and move on.
Create the wallow-free zone. (OK, give yourself and your team five minutes of moaning if you must.) Then, what are we learning from this? Is this now a hypothesis to test or a new law of nature? More importantly, what do we NOT want to take away from this experience? We’ve all worked with teams that were bogged down in the minefields of “we tried that once, got burned, and we’ll never do it again”…where “it” encompasses huge fields of action like “market directly to end customers” or “measure team performance.”

5. Make your peace with it.
Can you find the core of you that knows it will all work out? Perhaps in uncertainty you can reconnect with your spiritual center…or at least your sense of humor.


Resources for Further Exploration

Strategy Under Uncertainty, by Courtney, Kirkland, and Viguerie, Harvard Business Review, Nov/Dec 1997

Clients have consistently found this the most useful article they’ve read on decision-making under uncertainty. The concepts are presented clearly and apply neatly to personal as well as business decisions. What’s your strategic posture toward each goal area in your life (taking care of your health, dating, etc): are you shaping the future, adapting quickly, reserving the right to play, or sitting it out?

Discovery-Driven Planning, by McGrath and MacMillan Harvard Business Review, Jul/Aug 1995

This article deals head-on with the Achilles’ heel of strategic planning: we tend to treat our assumptions and guestimates as if they were facts. Instead, consider planning around testable milestones and, crucially, updating your view of the world as you test and learn. Again, written for business, but relevant for personal decisions

Deciding Factors, by Anni Layne Rodgers, Nov. 2001 quoting J. Edward Russo

A quick (and free!) reminder that “if you don’t know what to do, your gut reaction is to lean toward the world you are prepared to deal with.” So, be clear what you don’t know, invite dissention, and build confidence through straight talk.

The Innovator’s Dilemma, by Clayton M. Christensen, 1997

Crossing the Chasm, by Geoffrey A. Moore and Regis McKenna, 1995

If you have anything to do with high-tech strategy, you’ve read these books. If you don’t, grab them anyway (if you like business books). Two key lessons: 1) Beware rules-of-thumb that let you sleep at night but don’t apply to you; and 2) what you did to get where you are probably won’t get you where you want to go. Whether our eyes are open or closed, we’re all swimming in more turbulent waters than we usually care to recognize.

If you get a kick out of mapping problems with big uncertainties, check out these books:

The Art of the Long View, by Peter Schwartz

Seeing Tomorrow, by Ron Dembo and Andrew Freeman

Spreadsheet Modeling and Decision Analysis (3rd Ed), by Cliff Ragsdale

The Seven Spiritual Laws of Success, by Deepak Chopra, 1994

Read chapter 6, on relinquishing attachment to the known. Or, if you are spiritually inclined, read the whole, short book and perhaps completely redefine for yourself where you rest your certainty.


Note from Pam

Sometimes, when decisions seem impossible to make, I pause to remember the view from the top of Angel Island, looking out over everything going on in the Bay Area, imagining I could see south to LA, Baja, Costa Rica, Chile, and then north, east, and west across the Earth.

Everywhere, people living their lives, making decisions as best they can, and having the best time they know how. On this spinning planet, in our rotating galaxy, in this distant corner of the Milky Way, in our expanding universe…

Never fails to snap me back into perspective.

Very little is knowable, less still controllable, even less controllable by me. Any path I take will have its crevasses and peaks. So, I get back to basics…given what I do know and what I can thoughtfully imagine, what’s the most useful thing I can do right now?

Each month you receive this email with ideas and resources you can use to shape your success. Some of these ideas may strike you as obvious…I invite you to step back and look at how this is actually working in your life. Others may seem far out…I invite you to consider how much choice you actually have. If you’d like to get in touch about any of this, please email me. I’d love to hear your thoughts.




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About Pam Fox Rollin

Pam Fox Rollin coaches executives and high potentials especially in technology, health care, biotech, and professional services. Pam specializes in working with leaders stepping up from being rock stars in their functional areas to more strategic senior roles. She also guides the top teams of public, private, and fast-growth global companies to lead together more effectively.

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