Learning to live with uncertainty is the way to solve the wicked problems of our time

Brexit, China-US trade conflict, Covid-19, climate crisis, the war in Ukraine… we are, apparently, living in exceptional times.

With nasty problems swirling around everywhere, it gives the impression that we are now living in the age of uncertainty. The popularity of this frame is only outshone by the ubiquity of the associated words: unpredictable, exceptional, a VUCA world that needs leaders to solve the problems collectively.

I argue that this view is wrong, as our understanding of the world is socially constructed, open to dispute.

We have always lived in uncertain times.

Let’s take a look back to see that there has never been an age of certainty when only tame problems troubled us.

Galbraith’s original Age of Uncertainty book was published 44 years ago. Life before the pandemic included, for example, the Global Financial Crisis (2008), Iraq War (2003), 9/11 (2001), the end of Apartheid (1990), the fall of the Berlin Wall (1989), AIDS, the Civil Rights Movement, the rise of the Nazis to power (1933), or the Russian Revolution (1917). That’s only the last 100 years that shows that life has been predictable in probably one sense that everyone would die at one point.

All of these problems were wicked in a sense that we did not know how to fix them.

We need to accept that existential uncertainty is a part of life — the crucial part being not to eliminate that uncertainty, but simply to learn to live with it.

The way forward to come this state of acceptance is in switching from logical to integrative thinking.

We need to recognize that black and white thinking has led us to the conflicts and crises we currently find ourselves in. The problems we face are not just wicked ones for collective managers to solve. They are also, at the same time, tame problems for managers to execute on. They are also critical problems that need determined individuals to provide emergency help.

Here is the action to take for all of us to become more integrative thinkers.

Tip #1: Holism. Actively seek out the less obvious and broaden the range of elements that you consider.

Tip #2: Dynamics. Try to get clear about evolving states; what is becoming something that is not yet, leaving behind what it no longer is?

Tip #3: Coherence. Look at the connections and relationships that give subjects, events or experiences their meaning.

Tip #4: Transformation. Describe the natural movement to the new form that emerges by actively seeking innovative answers.

The notion of uncertainty as a state of exception keeps us trapped between good and bad choices.

Integrative thinking is the way to learn to embrace uncertainty and resolve tensions.

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