Certainty is a momentary phenomenon of rootedness in the passing of time. The certain is the unchangeable, the fact of the present as it recedes into history. Beyond the unchangeable, looking forward, is the highly probable. Given what we know in the present, what do we see coming next?
With slightly more uncertainty, we enter the short-term realm of business as usual— the probable.

Beyond the certain, highly probable, and probable, we enter a complex and chaotic future. Based on the trends we’ve seen over the last weeks, we have a sense of where the S&P 500 will be tomorrow. But forecasting 6 months ahead is highly uncertain, especially in volatile markets. Still, 7 months from now, the situation that looks so uncertain today will have returned, in retrospect, to certainty.

We make sense of uncertainty by constructing mental maps which define our interests, desires, strengths, and weaknesses. Casually or formally, we generate scenarios of possibility— usually highly influenced by the kinds of results we expect to see. Often, we construct our maps without notice. We recognize successful former patterns in the events we see; and base our plans on our skill at imposing what has worked before upon what comes next. We bridge uncertainty through learned inattentions and shortcuts; and convince ourselves that we have tamed its dangers.

A discussion with a client provides an example. She still had her job when she had explained to me that her career path had taken her to the height of her profession.  “No”, she said. She was not interested in considering how her work skills might be employed more productively— how her future might be determined more by her than by market forces.  She was certain.

Some months later, after her lay-off, she presented with a new  dilemma. Quite rationally, she explained the corporation’s reasoning: her salary and benefits had been too high; and younger colleagues, while not at her level, understood enough to maintain the division as a going concern. She had decided to begin a consultancy; but it was not going well. She believed that the envy of her former employees prevented them from hiring her. Yet again, she had rejected uncertainty for certainty: her consulting venture had been designed to fail. However, it had two plusses: it allowed her to speak her anger and frustration at her unemployment; and it demonstrated that she had “tried”; she was now resolved to wait for a new corporate opening.

These examples of unproductive certainty reflect a turning from reality. Our second discussion examined working knowledge. My client’s clarity about her former subordinates’ envy was striking. It was clear that the business planning for her consultancy was based on her own disregard for her working knowledge. Their envy was not simply a hunch: she had worked together with them as a team and had recognized it for a long time.

Then why base a business on such a failing proposition?  Her certainty here was of failure. It mirrored her real despair in the crashing and burning of a lifetime’s work. And it was only from examining her new working assumptions relative to her working knowledge that this emotional blockage emerged. She had needed someone to blame; and her business idea had simply recycled the worst part of a team dynamic she knew. Its yield? 100% productivity in blaming; 0 business productivity. In one sense it had completely eliminated uncertainty. In another, left the future completely at risk.

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Case Study: Uncertainty and the Questionable Productivity of Certainty


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