A word from Jolie Hodson, CEO of Spark



The upside of uncertainty

Uncertainty makes us uncomfortable. Just ask Sam Conniff, who’s chosen to specialise in the topic. As creator of the Uncertainty Experts, he is a consultant to some of the most successful brands in the world including Rolex, Lego, Netflix, Red Bull and Apple.
At the first Future State event, presented by Spark Lab and Semi Permanent, Sam shared research which involved a survey of 19,250 business people globally. It turns out 98% of us describe uncertainty in negative terms.
Yet a growing body of research shows that those of us with a high tolerance for uncertainty will be rewarded by becoming more innovative. These are the people who can stand to exist in a space of not knowing, even for a short time.

Step outside the familiar, embrace the negative space

“Uncertainty Tolerance allows people to get out of the well-furrowed tracks that can so often happen in business, to step outside the familiar and into the negative space, where genuinely new ideas can emerge,” Sam says.

Negative space is when you are in the unknown. When the data you have and the things you have experienced, are not the right indicators that will lead you to the right decision. Sam points out that while this level of uncertainty is unsettling, it can also be the ideal state in which to usher in truly innovative thinking.

“Hold that negative space of not knowing for as long as you can, and universally new ideas will begin to emerge, but don’t let it become a permanent state,” he says.

Uncertainty is psycho-biological

Sam points out that uncertainty registers as an emotion. When we feel uncertain our body perceives a threat and we experience a biological response, moving into states of high arousal, alertness and awareness. Our brain is in hyperdrive, and it's highly attentive. It’s primed for information gathering and it’s at its optimum state for getting stuff done.

‘I don’t know, but let’s find out together’

No leader wants to own up to not knowing, says Sam, citing a Harvard Business Review study that showed 94% of leaders would rather be seen as having made a bad decision than be seen as indecisive.
Sam admits the phrase ‘I don’t know’ is a tough sell, but welcoming in doubt - and then reframing doubt as an area of possibility - can be extremely powerful. It can strengthen relationships as people work collaboratively to find solutions, and it can set the scene for new ideas.
“This is a technique for a leader to hold space for indecision, to say to their team ‘do we feel we’ve made the best decision, if not, then I will hold this space for you’,” Sam says.
“If we begin to learn how we can tolerate doubt, we’ll begin to find it as a place of discovery.”

Uncertainty Tolerance is a state, not a trait

The solution to new problems created by such things as artificial intelligence, supply chain disruption and climate change, will not be found by looking backwards. The answer does not lie in what has gone before. Instead, Sam says, the most effective leaders of the most successful companies globally are learning to find comfort in being uncomfortable, to find possibility in feeling uncertain.
Uncertainty tolerance is a state of being, not a behavioural trait. While it tends to be practised by leaders and entrepreneurs, it can be learned by everyone in the organisation. You won’t find it in the standard management and business handbooks today, but Sam says this will change as the world continues to become a more uncertain place.

The co-existence of technology and uncertainty

Sam Conniff shares how Uncertainty Tolerance is essential in fostering innovation and adaptability in teams and businesses.


Beyond resilience, and towards Uncertainty Tolerance

The pandemic brought home to business leaders the value of resilience - in our people, our partners, our customers, and ourselves. But what if we go a step further and create, among our organisations, a higher tolerance for uncertainty? It’s not a state we want to exist in permanently, or even for a long time, but understanding the power of short bursts of uncertainty can greatly improve our ability to innovate. 

Here is an interpretation of his research, as well as the conversations he had with us, on why taking the step beyond resilience, and towards Uncertainty Tolerance, is advantageous for today’s business leaders.



Uncertainty Tolerance

Being resilient enables me to take the blows that are dealt to me.

Developing high Uncertainty Tolerance means I can not only take the blows, but I can also block some of the blows before they land.

Resilience gets me through the tough times.

Uncertainty Tolerance means I actively seek to understand how I am getting through the tough times and what lessons I can take from them.

Resilience gives me confidence that I can deal with difficult situations.

Uncertainty Tolerance means I can confidently turn difficult situations where there is no clear pathway forward, into a space which is open to new ideas and solutions.

Resilience helps bind my team together in a shared mission.

Uncertainty Tolerance means that in difficult situations there is still room for healthy debate, and when we do act, it is as a truly united team.

Resilience means I understand the cyclic nature of markets etc.

Uncertainty Tolerance means that I expect a ‘Black Swan’ event to emerge at any time. I don’t know what it will be, but my team is developing the ability to cope, even triumph, when it does.



Building Uncertainty Tolerance in the workplace

Uncertainty Tolerance, the ability to embrace times of high uncertainty and turn them into catalysts for innovation, can be easily taught to anyone in an organisation. 
To learn how, watch the video and then check out the exercise and Sam's three tips below.

How Uncertainty Tolerance can decrease risk in decision making

If you are a people leader, check out this exercise you can do with your team to help them develop their Uncertainty Tolerance 'muscle'.

View the exercise

Top tips on improving Uncertainty Tolerance in your business

Sam notes a myriad of benefits for organisations that actively seek to practice a high tolerance for uncertainty. Achieving uncertainty tolerance is as simple as following his three top tips. 

View top tips

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