Transforming Uncertainty Into Possibility

By Rebecca Zucker
Partner, Next Step Partners

Originally published by

If knowledge is power, the absence of knowledge can feel like powerlessness. Not knowing—or uncertainty—can be a source of anxiety, confusion, and overwhelm.

But we can’t know everything that’s coming in our professional or personal lives, so we have a choice. We can live with the excess anxiety that uncertainty creates or take steps to avoid having the uncertainty overwhelm us. The fact is that dealing with uncertainty effectively is one of the most important leadership competencies, both now and in the future, and can be a hard one to truly master – at least right away.

Nathan Furr and Susannah Harmon Furr are the authors of The Upside of Uncertainty: A Guide to Finding Possibility in the Unknown. Nathan is a professor of strategy and innovation at INSEAD in Paris and a recognized expert in the fields of innovation and technology strategy, and Susannah is an entrepreneur, designer, and art historian. This formidable husband-and-wife duo are the people you want to talk to when it comes to venturing into the unknown and developing this skillset.

Nathan and Susannah shared their wisdom on achieving resilience in the face of uncertainty, avoiding overwhelm, and expanding your possibility quotient.

The Flip Side of Uncertainty

The Furrs talk about the four stages of transforming uncertainty into possibility: Reframe, Prime, Do, and Sustain.

Reframe: Mindset is incredibly important when it comes to approaching uncertainty. It can be best to think of uncertainty through a more glass-half-full lens: as possibility. “Uncertainty and possibility really are two sides of the same coin,” says Nathan. Even that small shift in perspective can have an incredible effect—focusing on the potential downsides can preemptively sap your energy and keep you from moving forward.

Prime: When you have a refreshed mindset, uncertainty can start to look a little more manageable. Priming can take time, but it’s the step before the main show (action) and it’s an important one: preparing for change. Take stock of what you’ll need, what resources are at hand, and what you’ll do when wading into uncertainty starts creating discomfort. And to be clear, discomfort is always there. It’s only when you’re accepting of discomfort’s inevitability that you are primed to act.

Do: It takes willingness to learn—and if necessary, to fail—to move forward, the pair says. It takes action. And not just doing things to get them done, to achieve goals—it takes acting with purpose. “Act according to your values,” Susannah advises. Traversing the unknown this way will always be worthwhile because it removes ambiguity and helps you move past uncertainty. After all, experiencing a failure is beneficial because you can see firsthand that the worst-case scenario probably didn’t happen, and the fears you had before were to at least, to some degree, unfounded.

Sustain: Things will go differently than we planned, even in the best of times. Just as the food and drink we consume keep our bodies operating, a willingness to take these detours and setbacks as part of the journey can provide fuel for you to get back on the road. Various de-stressing exercises and coping mechanisms can help you bear the difficulty of venturing into the unknown and strengthen you for what comes next.

Raising Your Possibility Quotient

Susannah and Nathan Furr discuss what they refer to as a person’s “possibility quotient”—the likelihood that one will enable positive change and transformation in the midst of uncertainty. If you avoid uncertainty at all costs, your possibility quotient will be low. If you can tolerate uncertainty, embrace it, or even welcome it, your possibility quotient will be higher.

“We often fall into the trap, as human beings and organizations, of thinking that uncertainty is bad. We’re wired to fear it, and we want to avoid it,” said Nathan. “We often get mixed up; we think the lowest-risk decision is the right one, but it’s actually often not.”

A lack of uncertainty—a stable, certain, life with few things left to chance—can be uninspiring and boring. Someone who prefers that kind of life is someone with what would be considered a low possibility quotient. Meanwhile, those who have more comfort with uncertainty have a higher quotient and a willingness to take risks that could pay off—or at least keep them from regretting not going for it.

Often times as leaders, we need to move our teams and companies forward in ways that necessitate risk taking—the safest route at the moment also has a cost, too. That cost might be missing out on what could have been a beneficial opportunity, or it could be appearing to your team unwilling to take necessary steps as a leader, diminishing their confidence in you.

But by shifting your mindset, taking action, and continuing to forge ahead—like in the steps outlined above—you can start increasing your tolerance for risk, which opens many more doors in your personal and professional life. You can also keep situations with many unknowns from overwhelming you and keeping you from being at your best.

Achieving Transilience

The Furrs pay close attention to the way a mindset can transform from being stymied by uncertainty, unable to act in the face of it, to looking for the possibilities in the unknown and finding the courage to take the plunge. They call this transilience, which is an old geological term for abrupt changes in geological structures. They use that term to mark a phase shift, a leap from one state—uncertainty—to another—possibility.

“We truly believe that everyone can experience this kind of phase shift,” says Susannah.

Transilience isn’t the same thing as resilience, and sometimes realizing that quitting something that isn’t working or is harming you can be a powerful, eye-opening moment.

“Transilience is beyond resilience,” she says. It’s not just sticking with things that you want to prove to others you can do, or that you can already do well. “It’s also being able to shift to something unknown or hard for you. That’s a growth mindset.”

“It really is that moment when you are able to transform uncertainty into possibility,” Nathan adds. And from there, a whole world of opportunities can open up to each of us.



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