There’s No Innovation Without Uncertainty

There’s No Innovation Without UncertaintyHere is one of the biggest innovation obstacles around: the need for certainty.

Dwight Towers posted a great quote from Frederick Douglass over the weekend that gets at the problem:

“If there is no struggle there is no progress. Those who profess to favor freedom and yet deprecate agitation are men who want crops without plowing up the ground; they want rain without thunder and lightning. They want the ocean without the awful roar of its many waters.”

Douglass was obviously talking about bigger issues than I am, but the same principle holds. You can’t innovate without uncertainty.

Here is how Jeffrey Phillips puts it in his book Relentless Innovation:

“Everyone understands from the beginning how difficult it is to create compelling new ideas in any sutation, much less to convert those ideas into viable products and services. To compound the difficulty, executives are asking for disruptive ideas while expecting the business to continue to operate at full effectiveness and efficiency. Middle managers receive these messages and understand the unspoken dichotomy in the request: create radical, valuable new products and services but don’t upset the status quo.”

You can’t manage that way. To gain the benefits of innovation, which are substantial, you have to learn to live with some uncertainty.

Sacha Chua addresses this issue in the context of figuring out what you should do with your life in a really good post on passion and uncertainty:

“When people wish for passion, I think what they’re really wishing for is certainty: the knowledge that this, here, is exactly what you are meant to do, that intersection of what you love, what you’re good at, and what the world values. The certainty that this is the best way to spend this moment in time, and the ease of not having to make yourself do something or fight distractions.”

This is why I think that the single most important management skill to develop is a tolerance for ambiguity.

Just as you don’t get crops without plowing the ground, you don’t get innovation without creating uncertainty. In some respects, tolerating uncertainty isn’t enough – you have to actively invite it in.

There is no innovation without uncertainty.

Sacha asks a really good question: what happens if you let go of the need for certainty? What if you don’t know that what you’re doing will work? What if people hate your idea? What if there’s a chance you could be embarrassed? And worse, what if it happens in front of your peers, or your boss?

If you have to have certainty, none of these bad things will happen. But you won’t innovate. You won’t learn what you’re capable of doing, and you won’t get better. In fact, it’s impossible to learn without making mistakes.

Learning is the way around this problem. If we actively court uncertainty, then we put ourselves in a position to learn.

In a complex economy, the way to think about the future is this:

  • We can’t predict the future – there is no certainty.
  • But we can learn about the patterns from which the future will emerge.
  • In fact, while we can’t control the future, we can influence it.
  • The best way to influence the future is by innovating through experiments.

Here’s my prescription for tomorrow: Let go of the need for certainty. Try an experiment.  Learn.

I’ve got my experiment planned – what’s yours?

image credit: from flickr/Ecoagriculture Partners

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Tim KastelleTim Kastelle is a Lecturer in Innovation Management in the University of Queensland Business School. He blogs about innovation at the Innovation Leadership Network.

Tim Kastelle




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No Comments

  1. Graham Douglas on April 12, 2013 at 12:32 am

    Thanks for drawing attention to uncertainty. In the light of our much improved understanding of the human mind and of our world we can now learn to manage uncertainty successfully.
    The SOARA Process for Integrative Thinking and Integrative Problem Solving is designed to help people feel confident while remaining open to uncertainty.
    The SOARA Process can help you order your life and work in harmony with your environment. It can do this by improving the way you clarify what you have (possess or hold for use) and what you want (desire a thing held necessary to life or happiness or success or completion) and by improving the way you negotiate the change from what you have to what you want (problem solving). This enables you to obtain satisfying, optimum, achievable results ahead (hence, SOARA) for yourself and thereby gives you the self-reliance necessary to exert your maximum influence on others as you struggle to achieve successful outcomes in groups.
    The SOARA Process has been designed to meet the needs and wants of people in a complex environment in which all parts are interrelated in some way. Other methods of problem solving which are designed to deal with observable symptoms arising in a part of a complex environment tend to be of limited usefulness when interrelationships between the parts are important – as they usually are – and when problems are novel or ill-defined.
    The Process seeks to achieve all these things by providing a set of mental furniture to help replace the mental fixtures which tend to inhibit our performance and which we all acquire over a lifetime.

  2. Panteli Tritchew on April 14, 2013 at 7:16 pm

    Hi Tim,

    Great post! In creativity theory, a high tolerance for ambiguity is defined as a prerequisite for creativity and that applies in spades to innovation.

    To come up with novel solutions requires divergent thinking, the exploration, ideation, experimentation and trial-by-failure of multiple possibilities before converging to a “solution.” The designers/innovators who explore multiple avenues with no road -map and risk dead ends or false summits require a tolerance for ambiguity. Design studios have been practising this “design thinking” for quite some time.

    What I find most interesting and unique in your post is the direct challenge to management. “Middle managers receive these messages and understand the unspoken dichotomy in the request: create radical, valuable new products and services but don’t upset the status quo.”

    A high tolerance for ambiguity is not something that we normally associate with the management function, which is typically more about control, supervision, audit and evaluation, budgeting and deadlines. Projects that don’t come in on time and on budget are not routinely celebrated. This is to say, management (especially middle management) typically operates in the context of convergence, parameters and limitations, not divergence, openness and exploration. Gantt charts look much different than scatter plots for a reason.

    In the context of this article, it’s not so much the definition of innovation that needs to be examined, but the definition of management.

    Kind regards, Panteli

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