The right amount of uncertainty.

Creating just the right amount of uncertainty for those around you invites them to repay you with all the beautiful, useful chaos you could never have imagined, or deserved, otherwise.

Hero image
Illustration by Amanda Smith
Hero image
Illustration by Amanda Smith

It’s established wisdom that there’s no such thing as a sure thing: you can’t take anything for granted and the only true constant is change. But that doesn’t stop us, as humans, from looking for security and wanting things that seem safe, predictable and solid. Solid enough, at least, to rely on while we figure some other stuff out.

Creating a sense of certainty

We spend a lot of time finding ways to create order—or the illusion of order—in chaos. Until such times as we’ve meditated ourselves into a blissful state of detached flow, putting a dash of organization into a limitless, randomized universe feels good. It puts our mind at ease. 

We build relationships with friends so that we can trust them enough to share our spare keys and deepest secrets—safe in the knowledge they won’t rummage through our stuff when we’re at work or tell everyone they know about our questionable/embarrassing/immoral thoughts and acts.

We establish habits and routines to create a level of predictability where once lived constant calculation and guesswork. Whether diet, exercise, work, relationships or rest, these personal algorithms point us in the direction of good decisions in daily life—all without making us think too hard, wasting precious willpower, or reinventing the wheel every Monday. 

But too much routine gets us stuck in a rut. And friends who don’t challenge us keep us in an echo-y bubble of sameness, stagnation and self-awarenessless.

We need the uncertainty. Some challenge in our comfort. A little scary in our secure. Because this is where the interesting stuff happens. Where life and growth and discovery happen. Where our neuroplasticity kicks in and we meet new ideas, new energy and new identities.

Seeking balance

In work, as in life—because what is work if not a bit of life we do for money—these tensions also exist.  

Working in creative fields for the last decade, I’ve seen—and been part of—teams, brands and organizations searching for the perfect balance of chaos and order.

Opening up

If everything is open and fluid for a team, brand or organization, it can give the illusion that anything is possible. Nothing is off the table. The sky’s the limit! It sounds exciting—and once in a blue moon it works—but really, it’s stifling. This level of uncertainty creates cognitive overhead—a tax on progress. If anything is possible, where the hell do we start? How do we know where we’re going? And how will we know when we’ve arrived?

Teams in this situation are destined to spend a disproportionate amount of time and energy spinning on fundamental questions. If there’s nothing bigger than the group to structure conversation and frame disputes, people only have their individual opinions as guides. Everything is personal. Everything is up for debate. It’s exhausting to make decisions. And, if we’re wasting time and energy doing the tortuous he-said-she-said-but-they-think-and-I-think stuff, we’re not doing the exciting stuff. We’re not making the all-possible, table-filling, sky-unlimited magic we promised. 

Locking it down

On the other hand, if we try to create rules and ‘certainty’ to remove all debate, we build a rigid, unrelenting path for people to follow—limiting potential and alienating imaginations.

In the best case, our teams and organizations churn out exactly what’s expected of them—or in the best, best case a tad more than that—before the resentful simmer of boredom boils over and people leave. At worst, they happily execute on tasks until their passive apprenticeship is complete and their critical thinking has atrophied like the muscles of broken leg kept in plaster all summer while the other kids cartwheel and frolic under spouting fire hydrants.

If all the decisions are all-but made, people can’t see themselves in the process. They exist only as a step in a routine, a cog in the machine, or a whatever-individual-thing-makes-up-an algorithm. They don’t know—or maybe just don’t care—how to push, question, improve or innovate.

Keeping it interesting

The same tensions are true for the audiences of our creative teams, brands and organizations.

Clients—in my experience—want partners who can answer their challenge while simultaneously bringing something new and unexpected. They’re generally not looking for diligent order takers or mercurial mavericks, but something in-between.  

Similarly, people want brands that deliver on their promise while stretching into new, interesting, or useful places. We like it when the website selling us books uses their skills and systems to deliver groceries, furniture, and make-up with the same ease. And before we know it, we trust them with our cloud computing, entertainment, and voice-controlled light switches. We appreciate when brands give us something new, interesting or amusing to talk about, or support causes that align with our values. And we let them feel our wrath or vote with our dollars when they demonstrate irrelevance, tone deafness or hubris. As long as they don’t stop delivering on their promise, or stray incredulously far from their lane, we support them in entering the unknown.

For employees, an organization organized enough to provide worthy challenges and a platform for growth is the right place to stay, explore and contribute.

Clarity is the right amount of uncertainty.

So far we know we need to draw from both ends of the spectrum. But where, exactly, do we find this balance? How do we thread the needle of reliability and unpredictability, order and chaos, water and whisky? 

80/20 always seems popular. Maybe it’s that. Or 70/30. (As long you’re feeling really confident about the 70.)

But in reality, thankfully, the answer relies less on incalculable ratios and much more on what we put our energy and focus into defining.

Leaders are—and must continue to be—a source of clarity. Clarity is the ability to be very explicit about where you are going, but very flexible about how you will get there.
Bob Johansen The New Leadership Literacies

Looking for certainty in a chaotic world is an exercise in futility and frustration. But creating clarity is a pursuit worthy of our time and effort.

When we know what’s important and what isn’t, what matters and what doesn’t, what’s a priority and what’s a nice-to-have, we suddenly have something better than certainty: freedom. Freedom to completely ignore 99% of the chaos, and freedom play on the margins of the 1% that’s now right in front of us.

To be successful leaders of lives, teams, brands and organizations we would do well to follow Mr. Johansen’s advice and to dedicate ourselves to the creation of clarity.

Because it turns out that clarity creates just the right amount of uncertainty:

  • A compelling vision invites people to imagine different ways to get there.
  • A clearly articulated purpose inspires individual actions to support it.
  • The right question invites unknown answers.
  • An eye-opening insight awakens the imagination to new solutions.
  • A solid structure creates room to play. 

I now realise I wrote all this just to get to something David Ogilvy summed up in a sentence more than half a century ago:

"Give me the freedom of a tight brief."

But for teams, brands, organizations—and for life—it bears repeating. Give those around you and those you serve the freedom of a tight brief: good parameters with the right amount of uncertainty. Because when you do, they’ll repay you with all the beautiful, useful chaos you could never have imagined, or deserved, otherwise.

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