The Dark Art of Uncertainty

The Dark Art of UncertaintyEngineers hate uncertainty. (More precisely, it scares us to death.) And our role in the company is to snuff it out at every turn, or so we think.

To shield ourselves from uncertainty, we take refuge in our analyses. We create intricate computer wizardry to calm our soles. We tell ourselves our analytic powers can stand toe-to-toe with uncertainty. Though too afraid to admit, at the deepest level we know the magic of our analytics can’t dispatch uncertainty. Like He-Who-Should-Not-Should-Be-Named, uncertainty is ever-present and all-powerful. And he last thing we want is to call it by name.

Our best feint is to kill uncertainty before it festers. As soon as uncertainty is birthed, we try slay it with our guttural chant “It won’t work, it won’t work, it won’t work”. Like Dementors, we drain peace, hope, and happiness out of the air around a new idea. We suck out every good feeling and reduce it to something like itself, but soulless. We feed on it until we’re left with nothing but the worst of the idea.1

Insidiously, we conjure premonitions of mythical problems and predict off-axis maladies. And then we cast hexes on innovators when they don’t have answers to our irrelevant quandaries.

But our unnatural bias against uncertainty is misplaced. Without uncertainty there is no learning. Luckily, there are contrivances to battle the dark art of uncertainty.

When the engineering warlocks start their magic, ask them to be specific about their premonitions. Demand they define the problem narrowly – between two elements of the best embodiment; demand they describe the physical mechanisms behind the problem (warlocks are no match for physics); demand they define the problem narrowly in time – when the system spools up, when it slows down, just before it gets hot, right after it cools down. What the warlocks quickly learn is the problem is not the uncertainty around the new idea; the problem is the uncertainty of their knowledge. After several clashes with the talisman of physics, they take off their funny pointy hats, put away their wands, and start contributing in a constructive way. They’re now in the right frame of mind to obsolete their best work

Uncertainty is not bad. Denying it exists is bad, and pretending we can eliminate it is bad. It’s time to demonstrate Potter-like behavior and name what others dare not name.

Uncertainty, Uncertainty, Uncertainty.

image credit: wikipedia

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Mike ShipulskiDr. Mike Shipulski brings together the best of Design for Manufacturing and Assembly, Axiomatic Design, TRIZ, and lean to develop innovative products and technologies. His blog can be found at Shipulski On Design.

Mike Shipulski




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No Comments

  1. Roy Luebke on July 23, 2012 at 11:32 am

    Uncertainty is based on lack of information.

    The more information one possesses, theoretically the lower the probability of a negative outcome and possible loss. When dealing with potential future events, however, there comes a point of diminishing returns on gathering more information. We will never know everything, so at some point we have to go with the evidence at hand and make a decision to go-no go on selecting a course of action, big or small.

    Decision analysis techniques can help people deal with uncertainty and build ranges of probabilities which can provide insight for decision makers into what may happen in the future in order to prepare scenarios for possible action. Based on what actually happens, leaders will be better able to work through the ambiguity that is present in every business. Decision trees, sensitivity analysis, and influence diagrams are three solid ways of framing what may happen in the future.

    The main issue with uncertainty is that people are trying to prove the future. Any new concept demands proof of success, but people confuse evidence with proof. We can’t prove the future, we can only create it.

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