You’re about to start the job of your dreams, and you’ve got a bit of trepidation and fear. What if it’s not exactly what you expected? What if you’re not successful? What if you don’t even like it? Even in changes that we believe have the most promise, there is always a possibility of problems – and that means there’s a degree of uncertainty. The degree of uncertainty is the degree to which we fear, and therefore resist, the change. (See Why People Don’t Resist Change and Frozen in Fear.)
If you want to accomplish your change, then the first step is to minimize the uncertainty. Everett Rogers in Diffusion of Innovations addresses five factors that lead to adoption: relative advantage, compatibility, complexity, trialability, and observability. Of these, observability creates the ability for others to see the success and therefore minimize their uncertainty that this idea will work for them.
That’s why large companies have case studies and why our internal change efforts need success stories. Everyone needs to observe that this really works, and they can be successful, too. Two of the others, compatibility and trialability, speak to the ability of people to try the item with minimal loss. In other words, they’re free to try it and, if they don’t like it, move back. This minimizes the risk associated with the uncertainty.
Agile software development has recognized for a few decades that it’s impossible to eliminate all the uncertainty surrounding the development of complex software. The solution this problem was to continue to take a set of small steps. No one misstep is so large as to create a major problem. The iterative nature of agile software development minimizes risk and creates safety around a degree of uncertainty.
Agile software methodologies vary but are common in the idea of a small test – often called a spike – that can help to determine which ways are safe and which ways may be fraught with unforeseen problems.
In truth, there’s no way to remove all uncertainty from our world. As much as we can and should minimize it, zero isn’t really possible over the long term. Nassim Taleb elegantly explains in The Black Swan that it’s not possible to eliminate all possible conditions of risk. You can only address those that you know about. However, despite this rather grim sounding prediction of things to come, all is not lost.
Just because there are unforeseen circumstances doesn’t mean that your change effort must be frozen in fear. Amy Edmondson’s The Fearless Organization speaks about how we can reduce the general fear in organizations and thereby increase tolerance of ambiguity and uncertainty. When people feel generally secure, they’re more willing to take more risks. In Find Your Courage, Margie Warrell shares that courage – the kind of courage to proceed in the face of uncertainty – is about feeling safe enough to take appropriate risks.
If you can minimize uncertainty as much as possible and then work towards increasing base-level feelings of safety and security, you may just be surprised about how much energy people will put forth towards changes even where there is some degree of uncertainty remaining.