My opinion: How to better manage uncertainty

What have innovators learned that enables them to deal with the uncertainty of new business? Why are we so often frustrated by uncertainty? If you think back to the most significant events in your life, the ones you’re most proud of – like the big career change, the geographic change, that important relationship – didn’t they all happen after a period of uncertainty?

And consider that almost all innovations, breakthroughs, transformations and changes only come after a first step into the unknown. Even when you didn’t choose uncertainty, like the unknowns brought about by the Covid-19 pandemic, weren’t there still possibilities hidden behind the scenes? Although we often try to avoid uncertainty, we forget that uncertainty and possibility are actually two sides of the same coin. If we want new opportunities and possibilities, we must first go through uncertainty.

Why We Fear Uncertainty

Evolution has wired us to fear uncertainty. This presents a challenge because, despite your best efforts to resist, uncertainty has been growing for decades. Driven by technological changes that lower barriers to entry, greater participation and global connectivity, and many other factors, it is clear that uncertainty has become an integral part of our personal and professional lives. The Global Uncertainty Index, which tracks political and economic uncertainty, has been on a steady upward trend since its inception in the 1990s.

The challenge is that most of us haven’t learned how to deal with uncertainty. It is simply not a skill taught in school or passed down from parents. As our world becomes increasingly uncertain, the lack of skills to deal with the unknown can lead to anxiety, overreactions and ruminations, and even mental paralysis. As Jostein Solheim, former CEO of Ben & Jerry’s, said, “There is ambiguity and paradox everywhere…For people who love the linear way, life gets harder and harder in every direction. areas.”

The good news is that we can learn to deal with uncertainty. Thanks to the literature on topics such as tolerance for ambiguity, avoidance of uncertainty, and resilience, it is clear that we can learn to deal with uncertainty. However, they provide limited guidance on “how” to get better. My co-author and I combined the limited empirical research available with interviews I conducted over the past 10 years, where I asked innovators how they learned to deal with uncertainty. We have discovered that it is possible to train your ability to deal with uncertainty – what I call “uncertainty capacity” – like a muscle, both as an individual and as a whole. ‘crew.

In my new book, The Upside of Uncertainty, with co-author Susannah Harmon Furr, we describe over 30 tools organized around a “first aid toolkit” for dealing with the unknown (see diagram) . We illustrate these tools with our interviews with pioneers, innovators, designers and scientists, but also other groups of people facing uncertainty, such as paramedic turned film producer Ben Gilmour and venture capitalist David Hornik, Harvard Law graduate School despite dyslexia. We have distilled ideas from these first-hand accounts and developed practical tools to develop the capacity for uncertainty. The toolkit is intended to help those who face uncertainty find the “advantage” of uncertainty.

Develop your capacity for uncertainty

The tools for coping with uncertainty are organized into four categories: reframe, prime, do, and sustain. Some tools from each group are highlighted in the diagram.


The first and most crucial step is to reframe the uncertainty. Studies have shown that the way you describe uncertainty affects the way you think, decide and act. Since humans are inherently gain-seeking and loss-averse, if Treatment 1 for a new disease is described as 95% effective versus Treatment 2 which is 5% ineffective, we are more likely to choose treatment 1 even if the two are statistically identical.

One tool for reframing is the infinite play approach originally developed by New York University professor and philosopher James Carse. Do you live your life with a “finite” lens where you learn and follow the rules to win, or do you live a more “infinite” game where you can question and change your role, the rules, the limits and even the goal of the game ? ? Also consider reframing boundaries – whether geographic, technological, or personal related to the intellectual, social, emotional, or financial aspects of your life.


Priming makes uncertainty less threatening by helping you develop self-knowledge and the conditions to pursue new projects or better manage unexpected uncertainty. It starts with knowing your acceptance (or aversion) to a range of risks such as financial, emotional, social, physical, intellectual, political, etc. With this self-awareness, you can build your risk tolerance by taking smaller risks, even in unrelated areas to increase your ability to take other risks. Another way is to simplify your life by outsourcing to focus your efforts on tackling the unknown.

Part of priming is recognizing that even the greatest innovators among us have limits on how much uncertainty they can bear. Innovators like Steve Jobs (think black turtlenecks) have learned to maintain fixed habits, routines, and rituals as “uncertainty balancers” that build stability in certain parts of their lives to counterbalance changing parts. founder Sam Yagan said, “My best friends come from middle school and high school. I married my high school sweetheart…given the ambiguity I have [deal with] at work, I search less in other areas of my life.


To navigate the uncertainty, the next step is to act. Our research shows that most breakthroughs and successful start-ups don’t happen with one giant leap, but through a series of small incremental steps and course changes along the way. We also learn from top startup accelerators that the best way to learn how to navigate uncertain environments is to talk to as many people from different backgrounds, as early and as quickly as possible.

One of the most challenging skills is organizing yourself so you don’t fail. David Heinemeier Hansson, creator of the full-stack Ruby on Rails framework and co-founder of several start-ups like Basecamp and, uses an approach we call “values ​​over goals”. Instead of focusing on a goal (which, in uncertainty, is just a guess), he argues that focusing on achieving your intrinsic values ​​(which, for him, includes coding great software and ethical market action) ensures that you can succeed no matter how the outside world responds. Uncertainty is best resolved by taking action, but if you do so based on your values ​​– such as learning, growing, discovering, and living the life you care about – you can ensure your own success.

Another tool is to activate and unlock what is already there instead of inventing a new solution. Maria Montessori developed an eponymous early childhood education method that activates and unlocks the natural curiosity of children with intellectual and developmental disabilities instead of reinventing the wheel.


Two important ingredients for sustaining action in times of uncertainty are emotional hygiene and reality check. We need to pay attention to our emotions – as you would a physical injury – to avoid crippling self-doubt or unproductive rumination. At the same time, recognize that setbacks and failures are part of the learning journey. Another ingredient we often overlook is interacting with people, places, and things that increase your chances of taking the leaps of insight, connection, and serendipity that can change everything.

“Science is full of uncertainties,” said Ben Feringa, winner of the 2016 Nobel Prize in Chemistry for his work on molecular machines that could one day power nanobots in your blood to protect you from cancer or fix your pipes. house from the inside. When asked how he handles the uncertainty that accompanies scientific breakthroughs, he explained, “If you face uncertainty, you will fail,” so you must “be resilient to handle the frustration that comes with uncertainty”. It involves simmering for a while on the backhand and then asking yourself, “What can I learn from this?” What’s the next step I can work on? »

This ability to find “benefit beyond failure” is one of many frustration management frameworks that innovators use to sustain themselves through the rollercoaster of uncertainty of obstacles and breakthroughs.

Harness the power of uncertainty

As scary as it may sound, uncertainty can bring new opportunities when we learn to manage it well. In fact, it can make us stronger, as Nassim Taleb postulates in his book Antifragile. The question, again, is how. Beyond resilience, “transilience” is a radical change in the face of uncertainty and disruption, when we transform uncertainty into new possibilities to discover new paths to reinvent our lives.

How can I use this uncertainty to make myself stronger? What is the hidden opportunity in this uncertainty? For those facing uncertainty, these are powerful questions to ask.

Nathan Furr is Associate Professor of Strategy at INSEAD. He is director of the Leading Digital Transformation and Innovation, Innovation in the Age of Disruption and Building Digital Partnerships and Ecosystems, Executive Education programs at INSEAD. He is also the author of best-selling books published by Harvard Press: The Innovator’s Method, Leading Transformation, Innovation Capital and The Upside of Uncertainty.

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