Navigating Uncertainty

Sonja Blignaut

Who does Sonja Blignaut speak for in suggesting we have outsourced our relationship with uncertainty to certainty merchants? Can we recognise something of ourselves in that characterisation? Are we among those who have forgotten that we already know so much about navigating uncertainty?

This short presentation ranges over embracing messiness, re-cultivating our relationship with uncertainty and taking responsibility for unintended consequences. It tackles the desirability of staying “in the discomfort of not knowing” and warns against trying to converge too quickly to a solution.

Do we hear something of ourselves as we hear Sonja talk of the importance of cognitive diversity? Of the diversity of genuine difference? Of people who see the world radically differently, and who challenge any aspiration to a common culture?

Having produced Living With Complexity, I was already committed to Sonja’s notion that “sometimes we forget that we already know how to navigate complexity” – but I welcome this as another call-to-arms at a time when so many of our ordinary ways of carrying on suggest we are blinding ourselves to this observation.

Note: I’ve transcribed the whole presentation and have published key passages below the video. For more from @sonjabl see her blog

See also this Youtube Playlist of Talks By Sonja Blignaut as compiled by Anthony Green.

What are the questions I have been exploring? I guess it can best be summarised by How can we be fully human in the face of uncertainty? What happens to individuals and collectives when they face the anxiety of perpetual uncertainty and increasing complexity. How do we collectively turn this anxiety into creative energy? What does this mean for notions such as leadership (and leadership development), teaming, and organisation design and development? How must we structure our organisations for fluidity and rapid adaptation while maintaining our humanity and emotional wellbeing?

Reconnecting with the Spirit of Exploration

Dec 2020: NEW from Sonja – Reconnecting

“Complexity is messy & often filled with paradox. Therefore […] embrace ambiguity & messiness […] embrace being in the space of not knowing [where] questions are often more useful than answers”

Creating Messy Coherence

Creating Messy Coherence

Jan 2021: NEW from Sonja – Messy Coherence

“Words like “networked organisation,” boundaryless organisations etc., abound  [but] Fundamentally the image we hold in our minds is ordered and predictable with clearly defined boundaries, authority structures, roles, and tasks — we have simply flattened the hierarchies and renamed roles.


Stability is NOT Normal!

1:54 – We’ve been indoctrinated in a way to see stability and certainty as normal, and periods of instability and uncertainty as abnormal […] so kind of when things become uncertain, we think it will pass […] We hear people talking now about the new normal. And in that there is this belief that the new normal might look different, but it will be a new stability. And I think what we’re starting to realise now is that these last few decades of stability… That is what, what was abnormal, and uncertainty is the normal 😍

We Already Know How To Navigate Complexity

6:36 – Sometimes we forget that we already know how to navigate complexity. If you’ve ever been, if you’ve ever driven, if you’ve ever been in traffic, if you’ve ever used public transport, or even if you’ve just had dinner with friends or you’ve been in some kind of social context, you have navigated complexity. I think the problem is that we forget those skills when we enter the workplace. It’s like when we step over the threshold of our work environments, we suddenly imagine ourselves to be in this wonderfully ordered environment where we can predict, where we can have five year plans, and where we can, in a way, tame complexity.

Taming Complexity? Is That A Thing?

7:46 – And I think what’s really important for us to understand is that complexity can’t be tamed. It can’t be wished away. And it can’t be simplified. And it’s not good or bad. It just is. And we know if you… If you think about just the natural environment, any social context, any human context is complex and we’ve all experienced those and we all know how to navigate it. The problem is, as Diego Espinosa says, We have outsourced our relationship with uncertainty to certainty merchants.

Certainty Merchants

9:22 – I think a lot of the pressure that comes especially on leaders is when the people, or their, their people their followers, are expecting them to essentially be a certainty merchant. And I think the rise of… or our addiction in a way to having clear goals and clear strategies… to a large extent is driven by this need for certainty. We want to know what is coming next. And this is… One of the things that I believe is we need to re-cultivate our relationship with uncertainty.

Building on Alicia Juarrero’s Arguments

10:29 – If you look at what’s going on in the world at the moment, if you look at the rise of populism and the kinds of leaders that people are electing, you can see the… the ones who are able to promise certainty, or the ones who are trying to promise certainty, are not the kind of leaders that we need in the world right now.

We need to go beyond an intellectual understanding of complexity to an embodied, lived complexity

Edgar Morin

See also: Three Habits of Mind

Towards An Embodied, Lived Complexity

11:11 – A couple of years ago, you felt a bit like Chicken Little when you were telling executives that the world is complex, there’s uncertainty… they need to be… to have adaptive strategies, etc. It’s like they understood it cognitively, but it didn’t change any of their behaviours. And it’s almost as if the certainty that they still had superseded this cognitive realisation that there is uncertainty and complexity in their context. And I think what the pandemic has done now is… it has completely shaken those beliefs, and everybody now suddenly is able to see the uncertainty. The problem is we’re not entirely sure how to be in it.

It’s easy to teach the theory around complexity. But this embodied or lived complexity is, is not so easy. And I think it’s really important.

Sonja Blignaut

On Embracing Messiness

14:08 – So we really need to start embracing messiness. And that entails considering these dynamic connections and flows between things. And if you remember, I said in the beginning, complexity arises from the interconnections between things. And we tend to study the things themselves. You know, in organisations, for example […] There’s a huge focus on training individuals and trying to change the behaviour of individuals, rather than thinking about, for example, what the interactions look like between between people.

Taking Responsibility For Unintended Consequences

15:10 – Because of this messiness, and because complex systems are connected in nonlinear ways, in ways that we can’t necessarily see, and we don’t… we can’t fully understand… whatever we do, there will be unintended consequences. And you know, one of the things that we need to understand is that we need… we are responsible for those unintended consequences.

On NOT Striving for Consensus

17:20 – And you know another, another word that I’ve really come to dislike in organisations is alignment […] it’s used in in virtually every meeting […] it’s become a euphemism for agreement. So this drive for consensus and, and alignment very often removes the ambiguity and the necessary diversity that we need when we’re dealing with complexity. It’s essentially a way for us to try and get rid of the messiness […] and in complexity that simply strips away some of your resilience.

Cultivating Openness

18:26 – Openness is, is a is a stance. It’s a way of being in the world. And one of the things that you need to become open to is to be in questions. To stay in the question to stay in the discomfort of not knowing.

Avoiding Premature Convergence

19:11 – One of the things that really counts against us when we’re in uncertainty and when we’re in that pioneering space is to converge too quickly on what we think the problem is. And then from there to converge too quickly to a solution. So one of the things that I’ve learnt, or that I’m trying to learn, is not to fall into a problem-solution mindset, but to start looking for patterns. And to try and sit in the question and sit in the in the messiness.

Valuing Diversity

20:58 – I think if you look at diversity through the lens of complexity, you realise that it’s not a problem to solve, it is a strategic asset to nurture and the thing is that we, we are also focused very shallowly […] So we tend to think of things like gender and race, etc. But where diversity is really important, as well, is cognitive diversity. We need people who see the world radically differently. And in many of our organisations […] they say they want to change their culture, one of the first things they do is they say, we want to have one culture.

Avoiding Assimilation Into The Borg Collective

22:58 – I think many, many HR practitioners will tell you that they’ve been told “we need to hire people who think differently.” And those people who think differently don’t survive organisations for very long. I don’t know, for those of you who watch Star Trek, they get assimilated by the Borg. Or they leave […] How do we truly value diversity and how do we really become open to these diverse perspectives? And hold our own strong opinions lightly?

Becoming Open To Serendipity

This next quote references one of Sonja’s Blogs on Medium

Sonja Blignaut

One of the metaphors I love to use is “it’s hard to survive in the jungle if you’re trained in the zoo.”

Sonja Blignaut

Waiting To See What Emerges

25:30 – In complexity, going faster is not always the right thing. Sometimes, we can go faster in the completely wrong direction […] Sometimes the right thing… that we need to do… is to wait […] it’s almost as if we are sowing seeds all over the place and then we don’t give them the chance to germinate […] some of the best pioneers that I know, see a space, and then they wait to see what emerges, they don’t act too quickly.

When Time And Context Come Together

29:48 – Kairos time […] is […] the opportune time. It’s when time and context come, come together. So it’s an opportune time for something. And I think what’s happening is we are missing some of these kairos moments, where there is an opportune time for us to take a particular option […] or there’s a the opportune time missing because we are just focusing on speeding in chronos time.

Letting Go

31:09 – When the context shifts, some of our projects, business units, some of our relationships, some of the methods that we love, you know, many things become irrelevant and we actually, we need to stop doing them, we need to let go.

Traveller, your footprints are the path and nothing more. The path is made by walking. By walking the path is made and when you look back, you’ll see a road never to be trodden again. Traveller, there is no path on the trails across the sea.

Antonio Machado