Courage to let go of certainty


Globalisation and technology are dramatically impacting, creating advantages and opportunities for some, whilst presenting others with the prospects of loss and uncertainty. The key to a disruptive future is, how can; customers. competitors, employees and technology collaborate to turn the dynamics of disruption into a positive?

Established parts of the economy varying from retail to manufacturing seem subject to new sources of volatility and ambiguity. Banks and professional services fear being disintermediated as consumers turn directly to apps or fintechs to manage their money. Automotive manufacturers face the twin pressures of vehicle electrification and shifting patterns of ownership, which threatens their two primary sources of income -vehicle sales and aftercare. Meanwhile, many organisations are looking to shift how they work, from how people are employed, to what skills they need and even how they are led. Flexible working and working from home are just two ways that employers are responding to the needs of their workforce, whilst trying to balance these needs with the demands of 24/7 delivery.

These changes require a paradigm shift in leadership.

A more distributed leadership model is required to deliver progress across these ever-shifting sands that disruption brings. However, this can reduce certainty of who is in charge, where priorities lie and even what success looks like. The result is a workforce that is becoming increasingly disengaged, with a rising incidence of mental health issues and, in the UK at least, stagnating productivity levels. Yet, disruption is part of the natural order of life, it’s how progress occurs. Society’s problems often act as the impetus for inventors, scientists and entrepreneurs to explore novel ideas or create new ways of doing business. Jeff Bezos once said: “One of the only ways to get out of a tight box is to invent your way out.”(1)

Disruption then becomes both the cause and the effect of our actions, which, in turn, creates further uncertainty, as society moves to adopt new technology, rules or norms. For instance, the introduction of washing machine and other household appliances over the last 100 years transformed the way women lived. The resulting impact – a massive increase in the participation of women in the labour market which led to changes in the status of women in society, changing attitudes to education and disrupting the societal norms as men as the breadwinner. Clearly, many other factors have played a part in changing attitudes to men and women over the past century, but none have had such a dramatic impact on participation in the labour market than the invention of domestic appliances. (2)

Thor Washing Machine
Thor Washing Machine

As progress is made and the old ways become obsolete, it can feel uncomfortable as we experience the often-unwelcome change to our routine or livelihoods. To paraphrase George Bernard Shaw, “reasonableness doesn’t equate to progress”. Progress is usually measured over periods of months and years; changes that effect life expectancy, literacy and employment rates are unlikely to be noticed overnight. The impact of disruption on the certainty with which we live our lives is often felt in the moment. We’re wired to react to the threat of loss in the short term, far more than the possibility of long-term benefits. The problem then is us, we struggle to cope with uncertainty. The fear of loss, whether material or not being in ‘control’ causes us to react in the moment, to seek certainty.

A recent study showed that people who work for organisations in countries rife with corruption, social unrest and a lack of security, work more productively if the organisation has firm policies and processes in place. However, the same study showed that in nations where there is prosperity and relative stability, organisations fare better letting their employees loose, avoiding micro-management. So, we respond to uncertainty by seeking more certainty through the structure of rules. (3) Yet, at the organisational level, this can result in increasing levels of control, creating new layers of processes or procedures, increasing complexity and causing further disruption. People often try to compensate by working harder to create certainty, or become disengaged from their organisation, or even turn against it as the stress responses take over.

More worryingly, it’s becoming increasingly clear that our upbringing doesn’t prepare us for the challenges of the modern workplace. From an early age we’re exposed to a model of education that measures us through a system of exams, tests and inspections. The unintended consequence of this is that it puts our teachers, head teachers and governors in fear for their jobs if their school fails to attain or maintain the right standards with Ofsted or position in some form of league table. Ultimately, these people act in many ways to ‘game the system’ – selecting out pupils and coaching others to pass exams – which results in a “hollowing out of the curriculum.” (4) The result is people learn that providing the correct answers to questions and thereby being deemed to have acquired knowledge is the measure of our success. There’s no space for discovery, for exploration and learning through failure that’s so important to be successful in an uncertain world. We don’t learn the critical thinking skills, the creativity and the problem solving skills that the World Economic Forum sees as vital for success in the modern economy. (5) It’s as if we’ve lost sight of the original meaning of learning, which is to discover or follow a path.

How do we tackle this to operate more successfully in an uncertain and disrupted world?

There is a lot we can learn from others who have found a path through disruption. Whilst many organisations have gone through successful turnarounds, few have had to deal with such high stakes of disruptive or unknown environments as NASA and the British Army. In learning to cope with the uncertainties inherent in space travel or the chaos implicit on the battle field, these organisations have developed practices that we can draw on to do things better to respond to uncertainty, disruption and even crisis.

For instance, astronauts and military leaders are trained how to respond when things go wrong. They learn mantras – simple phrases designed to cope with the sudden anxiety caused by an emergency – which enable them to re-establish clear thinking. For astronauts this is; Warn, Gather, Work the Problem; Recognition that one person alone is unlikely to have all the answers. Far better to assemble a team to rapidly diagnose and then fix the situation. Meanwhile, military commanders are taught to use; Observe, Orientate, Decide, Act as a way to immediately react when coming under attack by the enemy. They know that being decisive and being quick to act is often the key to winning the battle. These mantras serve to provide simple and clear processes to re-engage the cognitive parts of our brains – literally regaining control of our minds. The result leads to clearer thinking in pressure situations and being able to refocus on the priorities. Indeed, both NASA and the British Army are incredibly purpose-driven organisations. Both have the language of mission suffused throughout them. For the British Army, a seemingly hierarchical structure is actually a series of teams, and team within teams all attempting to coordinate activity as part of an overall mission.

Leadership Development – NASA
Leadership Development at NASA

This clarity of purpose helps create space for thinking and innovation. Military commanders learn not to delay communicating for the sake of a certainty that may never exist. When dealing with the “fog of war”, it’s unlikely that the first plan will provide a solution to the problem. What does deliver success is people working in teams who have a full understanding of the problem and can quickly learn, adapt and improvise to find a way. NASA too has its own processes to turn clarity of purpose into action. Their team model is designed to work through challenging and complex problems, based on four Dimensions of Cultivating, Including, Visioning and Directing. NASA’s teams recognise the importance of the emotional and intuitive as well as the logical and empirical to the functioning of leaders and teams. In acknowledging the contribution of others – the social context – NASA works to foster not only a sense of purpose, but also one of connection, belonging to the organisation or mission.

The lessons we can take from this are clear.

Firstly, leaders need to create clarity. In the absence of a certainty, they need to communicate in a way that encourages a clear direction of travel. Providing clarity over the why, with less emphasis on the how or the what, will encourage more of a discovery mindset and people learning through exploration and experimentation.

Secondly, they need to foster belonging – this goes beyond engagement – this is an emotional connection, a common identity of people working on a cause or mission to create a lasting impact.

The future is uncertain, but we can look to the past to see how others have found a path through.


(2) From Ha-Joan Chang – 23 Things they don1 tell you about capitalism.
(3) Ronald Fischer et al (in press). Does organizational formalization facilitate voice and helping organizational citizenship behaviours. Journal of International Business Studies.
(4) Juian Astle – The Ideal School Exhibition report by Royal Society for the Arts. 2017.
(5) Future of Jobs report. World economic Forum. 2017.


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