Navigating deep uncertainty

by Aug 25, 2020

  • Just because you can’t see the future, doesn’t mean you can’t imagine possibilities.
  • Being mindful of your present state alerts you to how far you can leap
  • Without acknowledging the past, you remain tethered to the now.

I’m back thinking about how we use time orientation to navigate deep uncertainty.

In a pandemic (or with disruptive forced change) you certainly do find an additional emotional charge to the concept of the past (the nostalgia, the yearning, the loss associated with what you used to be able to do). The present for many is deeply uncomfortable – mentally, physically, spiritually, and economically. And the future? An overiding sense of pessimism prevents many from spending too much energy in consideration of that.

And yet we must.

The ease with which we can think about the future, harness oppportunities, create possibilities, shrug off the pessimism is directly correlated to our relationship with the past and the present.

Ok, I have no scientific studies on this, so ‘directly correlated’ is a bit of a stretch. Its more a hypothesis. But it’s one I am very confident on.

Past enables, protects and can constrain


We know that legacy issues are one of the biggest anchors to making change in organisations (cultural beliefs, technology infrastructure, policy decision-making). It’s why the agile ritual of ‘retrospectives’ prove so powerful. Before bad decisions or poor choices take root in the organisation, you review what’s worked well, what hasn’t and what you need to iterate or change.

There is also wisdom in our organisational past and to access this wisdom is to fortify your future decision making. I recently attended a lecture from EbonyJanice Moore and Thea Monyee on Bringing Joy into Anti-Racism work, the premise being that you cannot make lasting sustainable change if you are doing it from a place of shame. It was rather fabulous and one of the gems that emerged was the concept of Sankofa. It’s a word in one of the Ghanian languages which means ‘ to go back and get it’. It came up in context of excavating your ancestor’s histories. Most white people refuse to acknowledge past ancestors violence and opression (I wasn’t around then, not my problem). The problem with not looking back and ‘getting it’ is you are then most likely going to continue perpetrating trauma on some level.

And this had me thinking about organisational change – we often talk about recognising the legacy of past change and learning from the feedback. But is it just lip-service? Do we REALLY get it? Or is it just a tick the box excercise. For many, many organisations its the latter. And yes, the organisational trauma of poorly conceptualised, designed and delivered change continues.

The present determines the size of our actions

 When we look at the now we identify our current state.

And we have opportunity to introduce more mindfulness:

How are we feeling right now about this change?
How are others feeling right now about this change?
What does that tell us about how we are going?

There’s a lot that can come from implementing mindfulness – some of it will be good, and some of it will be not so good.

But the most important aspect of being mindful of our own state as leaders, and mindful of how our people are feeling at the moment is it determines how big are the steps you take to move forward. There is no point at all creating large ambitious possibilities if you are depleted, if your people are depleted. Small steps are perfectly acceptable when you are facing into deep uncertainity. As my partner in Big Bounds, Small Steps, Jillian Reily says:

You can’t think yourself out of uncertainty, you can move yourself towards possibilities.

The future is already here, it’s just not very evenly distributed.

 In the recent Only Forward Take 2 podcast – Innovator and philospher Tim Rayner suggests that leading at the moment is like being a scuba diver in murky water. We’re groping for what’s next, feeling our way, bumping into things.

And here’s the thing, for the truly innovative, that’s the way that the future has always been navigated. There are many, many lessons to be learned from start-ups on how we navigate deep uncertainty.

How we ideate, identify products and services for different scenarios, how we test and learn, prototype, use data to inform the next steps – these are NOT new ways of working. They are just as William Gibson wrote, unevenly distributed.

But its not just the processes and ways of working that help us move through uncertainty, its the mindsets we bring to the task.

Retaining balance to navigate uncertainity


Where we chose to put our focus on the temporality of change can skew our path. Too much looking back blinds us to the now and future. Too much inattention to the past commits us to repeat errors and reduce confidence in our future attention. Too little looking at the now risks burnout, fatigue, and missing important feedback.

It’s like we need to do an “around the change-clock scan”  for past, present, and future to be integrated.

That’s pretty much what Lena Ross and I have created in our Leadership Disrupted workshop with the Agile Change Leadership Institute. We use a unique 3XSpective approach (retrospective, introspective and futurespective) to mining the past, present and future for navigational paths. 

If you need help with that balance, drop me a line!




A change management Jiminy Cricket, sitting on your shoulder coaching you on the way forward. I know you’re capable of greatness. So drop me a line.


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