Building A Better Mindset To Deal with Uncertainty: The How-To

We need a level of thinking and a class of ideas that become better in cases of uncertainty.

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By Dr. Petar Stojanov • Apr 29, 2020


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Here's a story Chris Voss, one of the FBI's most celebrated hostage negotiators, recounted from his earlier days training for the Hostage Rescue team. Chris recalled that the single most effective method for trainers to test the resilience of candidates was not through grueling physical trials, or complex mental challenges, but simply to place them under uncertainty.

In preparation for early morning runs, trainers wouldn't reveal the length of the run, or the time they would have to complete it. In a keynote speech he did in 2017, Chris said, "If we knew how long, or how far we had to run, we'd be able to pace ourselves. But they'd just say, "Start running, we're done when we're done…' If the unknown is a stressor for elite forces, imagine how much of a stressor it is for everyone else."

At the time of writing this piece, the world is gripped with uncertainty and many countries are enforcing stringent lockdowns. As we unite together against a common enemy, there is no telling how long this battle will last. In the meantime, we continue to work from home and remotely on Zoom, keep fit in makeshift lounge room gyms, and immerse ourselves in new hobbies like the art and science of making sourdough bread.

One thing is for certain: this is not the first time we've been faced with similar uncertainty, and it will certainly not be the last. Four years ago, I wrote an article in Entrepreneur addressing the shift from being a corporate employee to becoming an entrepreneur, where mental resilience in times of uncertainty was identified as one of the most important factors of success.

The article came on the heels of an economic downturn in 2015. The current COVID-19 challenge bears similar hallmarks: a weakened economy, mass layoffs, and -perhaps most challenging- the uncertainty of knowing what will happen in the market.

The "next" normal

When do things return to normal? Will they ever return to normal? What is normal anymore? A lot of agencies and consultancies are referring to the post-COVID era as the "next" normal, with industries and markets operating in new conditions that we cannot fully/easily predict or foresee.

Part of what allows us to survive as humans is the ability to forget traumatic times. Sadly, we also tend to forget the lessons we ought to learn from them. In his book Antifragile, Nassim Taleb tells a story of Pharaonic Egypt where during seasonal floods, scribes would track the high-water mark of the Nile, and then use those marks to estimate for future worst-case scenarios. They assumed that future scenarios would never be worse than those that preceded them.

Our previous high-water mark was the 2010 financial crisis, and before that, the 2001 financial crisis. Every economic crash was worse than the previous one.

Building a better uncertainty mindset

In uncertain times, there are winners and losers. If you happen to be in the personal protective equipment industry making N95 masks, or hand sanitizers, or a food delivery company, these are all industries that are growing in the face of uncertainty.

While we cannot rely on luck alone to place us on the right side of an uncertain future, we need a level of thinking and a class of ideas that become better in cases of uncertainty. Here's what you can do:

1. Become action biased In the presence of uncertainty, the biggest mindset shift we need to make is to break out of what Nathan Furr of INSEAD calls unproductive uncertainty. The worst action to take is no action at all, and history is unkind to those that adopted the "let's wait and see" mentality in the face of the 2015 economic downturn. However, the second worst action to take is to bet the entire house on a particular outcome. We cannot adopt a binary thought process in an environment that is so complex and containing so many unknowns. We need a better methodology to determine the right action, and then to make a considered and decisive response. In times like these, far more important than being right is surviving for long enough to figure out what works, and what doesn't.

2. Build better anticipatory models Once we've worked through the psychological challenges of uncertainty, we need to overcome the immediate satisfaction of short-term thinking, and prioritize for the tougher journey of long-term gain. Once we open our thinking to future possibilities, the problems of the present suddenly become easier to bear. Three important questions to ask:

  • How might we survive in the present, reframing our current capabilities to create new present value?
  • How might we look to the future to seek out the new opportunities that will inevitably emerge?
  • How might we reframe an uncertain future into a strategic advantage?

3. Strap in for the long haul It remains unclear how long the present state of affairs will last. In fact, in a recent Harvard study, scientists reported that social distancing measures could be necessary until 2022. Given what we don't know is far greater than what we do know, the right course of action, now and in the future, is the one that best enables our survival. There's a reason why the human body has two lungs and two kidneys; we don't need their full capacity for most of the time, but we do need them in challenging times of illness. The human body is built to survive in uncertain times. It's why the human race has existed for millions of years, and yet 75% of the present S&P 500 companies will be replaced by 2030. Business and economic policies have much to learn from nature.

4. Find new paths to create value In the midst of a ventilator shortage, Tesla have successfully created ventilators, mostly created out of existing automotive parts in an effort to address the US government shortfall. In the UAE, the Department of Health in Dubai is working closely with 3D printing companies to create urgently needed face masks for frontline healthcare workers, and even exporting them to the US.

5. Reframe the narrative from uncertainty to exploration In a recent Entrepreneur Middle East Round Table presented by du, a cross-industry group sat with the editorial team to discuss the cultural and mindset changes required in innovation. The practice of innovation requires a robust methodology for exploring the unknown. Where most see challenge, some see opportunity. In our own team at Black, we have seized this unique opportunity to share our own innovation framework Think Fast Decide Faster with governments and organizations, to help them tackle their present uncertainties and challenges, to reframe them into new opportunities, and develop the flexibility to reframe present skills to create new value.

Related: An Action Plan For Business Leaders To Tackle The COVID-19 Crisis (And Its Aftermath)

Dr. Petar Stojanov

Partner, Innovation and Future Strategy, Black

Dr. Petar Stojanov leads the Innovation and Future Strategy practice at Black, a global design and innovation advisory. A quantum physicist turned future strategy expert, his team advises governments and organisations to develop regulatory and policy frameworks around disruptive technologies, accelerate talent, and build innovation portfolios with tangible human and commercial impact extending into the billions.

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