Too Much V.U.C.A.

The organizers for OXSCIE 2018 (Aga Khan Foundation, Global Centre for Pluralism and Oxford) asked me to set the stage for their two-day event by talking for 10 minutes around the question, “What is uncertainty?”

(Admittedly I went slightly over time. Well, way over time.)

Because I love this question. I love it, because it challenges us all to stop and think about a word—uncertainty—that gets thrown around more and more everyday.

At virtually every leadership-ish event I go to these days, people talk about the V.U.C.A. world. Volatile, Uncertain, Complex, Ambiguous. The acronym originated in the US Army War College in the early 1990s (see the original, much-photocopied essay), where, in the aftermath of the Cold War, military officers and students struggled to make sense of the new strategic environment. It has entered into popular language today in executive forums because it seems to capture the mood that many people—especially people burdened with decision-making responsibilities—feel.

In my slideshow, I threw up a couple random stock illustrations of the V.U.C.A. acronym that I had pulled off the Internet. (Another aside: The availability of stock art to illustrate how to make sense of the world is, I think, a big red flag that we need to examine these sense-makings more closely before we adopt them ourselves!)

If you run this Google Image search yourself, you’ll come across some stock definitions that are laughably bad. e.g.,

Uncertainty: When the environment requires you to take action without certainty.

Others hit closer to the mark:

Uncertainty speaks to our very human inability to predict future outcomes. In uncertain environments, people can be hesitant to act because of their inability to be sure of the outcome, leading to inaction and missed opportunities.

This definition, I think, captures the concepts that decision-makers have in mind when they talk about uncertainty today: unpredictability, hesitation, inaction, missed opportunities. The broad notion is that uncertainty is a bad thing, a negative, because ideally what we’d possess whenever we make decisions is certainty:

Is that the right action to take? Yeah, I’m sure. Are you certain? I’m certain.Then what are you waiting for? Go and do it.

Do you love that person? Yeah. Are you certain? I’m certain. Then marry them.

Certainty is our preferred foundation for the biggest, most important decisions that we make in life.

If that’s right—and if uncertainty is the absence of that kind of decision-making ability—then we’re in trouble. We’re going to be hesitant and miss out on a lot of opportunities in our lifetime—because the present world is full of uncertainty.

So Much We Don’t Know

Consider a few of the biggest and most obvious causes of uncertainty about humanity’s present condition:

Urban Unknowns

Take urbanization. The world boasted two mega-cities of more than 10 million people in 1950—New York and Tokyo. Today there are 40, two-thirds of which are in the developing world. Humanity’s urban population has quadrupled in the past 75 years, and that quadrupling has put everyone in closer proximity to everyone else. Now, 95% of humanity occupies just 10% of the land. Half of humanity lives within one hour of a major city—which is great for business, and also great for the spread of disease. Despite all our medical advances, the 2017/18 winter was the worst flu season in a decade in North America and Europe. Why? Because it was the worst flu season in a decade in the Australian winter, six months prior. Thanks to the global boom in livestock trade and tourism, we now live in a world where, whenever Australia sneezes, the rest of us might get sick. And vice versa.

Environmental Iffiness

Or take environmental change. In 1900, there were 1.6 billion humans on the planet, and we could ignore questions of humankind’s relationship with the biosphere. Now we are 7.4 billion humans, and it seems we can no longer do so—an inconvenient truth which South Africa re-learned this spring when Cape Town’s water reservoirs dried up, and which the UK re-learns every year during its now-annual spring flash floods.

Maybe renewable energy technologies will solve our biggest climate problems. In just the past twenty years, renewable power generation has grown nine-fold, from 50 MToE (million tonnes of oil equivalent) in 1998 to 450 MToE today.

Or maybe not. Looking twenty years into the future: on current trends, by 2040 renewables will still only make up 17% of the global energy supply, up from 12% today. The world keeps growing, and growth is energy intensive.

Demographic Doubts

Take demographics. At the beginnings of life: Fertility is falling worldwide. Birth rates are already at, or below, replacement levels pretty much everywhere except in Africa. At the end of life: Life expectancy is rising worldwide. In 1950, the average human died at age 50; today, at age 70. (That latter statistic is maybe the most powerful, least debatable, evidence of “progress” that human civilization might ever compose.)

The combination of both those trends means that humanity is aging rapidly, too. In 1975, the average Earthling was 20 years old; today, the average Earthling is 30 years old. That extra decade has mammoth consequences for every aspect of society, because virtually every human want and need varies with age.

One of the easiest places to see this impact is in the public finances of rich countries. In the US, to deliver current levels of public services (everything from education to health care to pensions) to the projected population in 2030, taxpayers will need to find an additional US$940 billion. In the UK, they’ll need to find another US$170 billion, and in Canada they’ll need to find another US$90 billion. Why? Fewer taxpayers, more recipients. How will we fill this funding gap?

Economic and Political Insecurities

Meanwhile, a tectonic shift in global economics is underway. By 2050, China’s economy will be twice the weight of the US’s in the world. India’s will be larger, too. What changes will that bring?

Geopolitics is going through a redesign. The post-WWII liberal, rules-based international order is anchored in a handful of multilateral institutions: the UN, the WTO, the IMF, the World Bank, the EU, the G7. In the very countries that built this order, more and more people are asking, “Is this the order that can best deliver me peace and prosperity in the future?” Those who loudly shout “No!” are winning elections and shifting the tone and content of democratic discourse. In the US and UK, trust in government has fallen to about 40%. Q: Which country’s public institutions boast the highest trust rating in 2018? A: China (74%). All of which begs the question: Whose ideas will govern the future?

Analysis Paralysis…?

In short, humanity is sailing headlong into trends that will transform us all in radical, unpredictable ways—and that’s before we even begin to consider “exponential technologies”.

We do live in a moment of big unknowns about the near future—bigger, maybe, than at any other time in human history. This could be the proverbial worst of times, or best of times—and both seem possible.

So if “uncertainty” is what we generally take it to be (i.e., an unwanted ignorance that makes us hesitate), then our world must be full of indecision and inaction and missed opportunities right now.

I’m More Worried About Certainty

Here’s where I call bullshit on this whole conception of uncertainty. It just doesn’t feel right.

And feeling is the missing dimension. To define “uncertainty” as our degree of not-knowing about the world around us is, I think, only half-right. Half of uncertainty is “What do we know?”, out there. But the other half of uncertainty is “How do we feel about that?”, in here.

Once we understand that uncertainty exists in this two-dimensional space, I think we better appreciate its positive role in our thinking and acting. And I think we discover that the danger zone isn’t uncertainty. It’s certainty.

Four Sins Of Certainty

Take the fearless know-it-all. “I understand my domain better than anyone else. That’s how I’ve gotten to where I am today, and that’s why I can make bold moves that no one else is willing to.” We call that myopia.

What about the anxious expert? They’ve done everything possible to prepare themselves for the job in front of them. That’s why, if they fail, they know the depth of their failure better than anyone. That’s what we call angst.

How is it possible to be certain AND not know? By being certain that you don’t know—and that you need to know. You need to act, and you know that the consequences of acting wrong can break you. You see all the variables, but no possible solution. So you’re stuck. We call that paralysis.

To illustrate each of these three ‘sins’, I mapped them to the recent behaviors of three prominent political leaders. I tried really hard to think of a world leader who would fit into the fourth quadrant…but so far I’ve drawn a blank. Any ideas? It would have to be somebody who (a) doesn’t know anything, but (b) doesn’t care because knowledge is for losers. What matters is willpower.

We call that hubris.

Four Virtues Of Uncertainty

The healthy role for uncertainty, it seems, is to protect us against these extremes:

Uncertainty can challenge myopia, by confronting the know-it-all with a diversity of views.

Uncertainty can validate the angst-ridden agent. Through peer mentoring and support, we are reminded that, even if our mistakes have been great, and final, those losses do not say everything about us. Validating voices force us to recognize the positives that we’ve omitted from our self-knowledge.

Uncertainty can replace our paralysis with a focus on learning. True, some critical factors may be unknowable, and some past actions may be unchangeable. But not all. A good first step is to identify the things we can affect—and understand them better.

Uncertainty can prepare us to weather the consequences of hubris. Maybe you are always right. Maybe you do have magic eyeglasses to see reality more clearly than everyone else. But just in case, let’s do some risk management and figure out what we’ll do if it turns out that you aren’t, or don’t.

The Power Of Doubt

Awhile back, I mused about the danger of too much truth in democratic societies:

When too many people believe they have found truth, democracy breaks down. Once truth has been found, the common project of discovery is complete. There is no more sense in sharing power with those who don’t realize it…To rescue the possibility of groping toward Paradise democratically, we need to inject our own group discourses with doubt.

Now I’m beginning to understand that the power of doubt extends far beyond the political realm. It’s an important ingredient in all domains of leadership—from figuring out the future of education, to making decisions in our professional lives, to maintaining our mental health. (A couple of my friends at Oxford Saïd Business School, Tim Morris and Michael Smets, did a major study among CEOs on this topic.)

Can we get comfortable with being uncomfortable? That, I think, is one of the critical skills we all need to develop right now.