certainty uncertainty

TEP #041: The Amazing Relief (& Efficacy) of Not Knowing

What’s the first obstacle most communities face when it comes to making progress on the most pressing social issues like crime and homelessness?

Certainty about the wrong things.

Today, I’m going to take you on a journey that explores the twin roles of certainty and uncertainty in complex problem solving.

One approach leads nowhere, exacerbating the problem and frustrating everyone.

The other opens the door to progress and transformative change.

Based on my years of consulting with change initiatives across the country, let me explain these two approaches and how to choose between them.

The pitfalls of knowing what the future should be

Imagine arriving in a community determined to tackle a social problem head-on. 

The passion of community leaders is admirable.

They know exactly what they want to achieve – a future free from the issue at hand. 

However, this eagerness about what the future should be can lead them to overlook a crucial step – gaining certainty about the present, about what is.

At the first meeting, they share their vision, their desired outcome. 

But when asked about the current situation, their answers waver. 

They might believe they know “everything” about the problem, yet deeper probing reveals gaps in their understanding. 

You see, their desire for change is so strong that they spend all their time thinking about how to change the situation rather than doing the work to better understand the situation.

It’s like attempting to build a castle without a solid foundation.

Certainty versus uncertainty

To be effective problem solvers, we must shift our perspective. 

Here’s the big picture in matrix form:

You can be certain or uncertain about the current reality (or, as some people say, about what is).

And you can be certain or uncertain about what you want the future to be (in other words, about what should be).

Way too often, people espouse certainty about what the future should be but don’t know the basic details about current reality and its characteristics.

Because they don’t understand how the problem is happening, their ideas about what should be are not very effective or realistic.

At the same time, their vision of the future tends to close their mind to the multitude of potential solutions.

Combining these tendencies can sound inspirational (“Let’s change the world…and here’s the solution!”), but it’s really just blind, dogmatic idealism.

In order to be successful, you need to connect visions of the future with a deep understanding of current reality.

In other words, reality is the guide for how the problem can be influenced.

And an open mind about the future allows you to consider many possible perspectives and options.

Moving in the right direction

In general, you want to move from ignorant to informed about current reality (what is). In this case, you are moving from uncertainty to certainty.

At the same time, you want to move from close-minded to open-minded about what should be. In this case, moving from certainty to uncertainty.  

It’s not always true, but the best partners and allies lean in these helpful directions.

And who needs enemies if your fellow changemakers lean toward ignorance and close-mindedness? 

6 ways to get started knowing and unknowing

Here’s a list of practical tips to strike the right balance between gaining more certainty about the present and embracing uncertainty about the future.

Gaining more certainty about the present

  • Data-Driven Exploration: Numbers don’t lie. Dive into data, collect relevant statistics, and analyze trends to grasp the full scope of the problem. Understanding the current situation lays the groundwork for informed decision-making.
  • Engaging with the Affected: Step outside the boardroom and engage directly with those affected by the issue. Listening to their stories, challenges, and experiences will humanize the problem and provide invaluable perspectives.
  • Collaborative Learning: Partner with experts and organizations that have experience in dealing with similar issues. Their knowledge and insights can fill the gaps in your understanding and pave the way for more effective strategies.

Embracing uncertainty about the future 

  • Design Thinking: Embrace the power of design thinking, which encourages iteration and experimentation. Don’t fear the uncertainty of the future; instead, view it as an opportunity to refine and adapt your approach continually.
  • Fostering a Learning Culture: Encourage a culture of continuous learning and improvement. Celebrate failures as opportunities to grow and learn, fostering an environment where new ideas are welcomed and nurtured.
  • Scenario Planning: Instead of trying to predict the future with absolute certainty, engage in scenario planning. Consider different potential outcomes and develop strategies to address each one. Flexibility and adaptability are key.

The 5-second take-way from all this?

Get informed about what’s happening now, and stay open-minded about the future.

It sounds obvious, but I assure you, it’s so rare.

See you again next week.


Whenever you’re ready, there are two ways I can help you:

I’m a strategic advisor for the toughest societal problems like poverty, crime and homelessness. People come to me when they want to stop spinning their wheels and get transformative, systems-level change.

I’m a coach for emerging and executive leaders in the social and public sectors who want to make progress on their biggest goals and challenges.

Let’s find out how I can help you become transformational.