Reflections on uncertainty

Uncertainty: A concept that is rich, evocative and loaded with meaning.  Uncertainty can conjure up fear and trepidation, or alert one to future opportunities to be explored, depending on the perspective taken. An entrepreneur may look favourably on uncertainties within a particular market from which he can exploit and profit.  In contrast a middle manager may fear the consequences of an uncertain future generated by an organisational restructure. What is clear from these two examples is that “uncertainty” is neither a simple nor a neutral term.  Instead it is a multi-faceted concept, one that has been discussed and debated by scholars across a broad range of intellectual disciplines from economics to engineering to psychology. To the mathematical mind uncertainty may conjure up probabilities of outcomes; to the psychologist the debate centres on the extent to which uncertainty is an objective or subjective phenomenon, and to the business executive the presence of future uncertainties form the backdrop to most strategic decisions. (For the interested reader Magda Osman has written a masterly synthesis of the different disciplinary approaches to uncertainty in her book “Controlling Uncertainty: Decision making and learning in complex worlds

The Oxford Dictionary of Current Usage 2005 defines uncertainty as “the state of being uncertain; something you cannot be sure about”.  Similarly The Oxford English Dictionary defines uncertain as “not able to be relied upon; not known or definite”.  Uncertainty would seem to be a state of unknowing – where the individual lacks full and complete knowledge of a situation.  These are circumstances in which we constantly find ourselves.

We may not like this state of unknowing and we may be scornful of any notion that the intrinsic uncertainty in our world may be managed. And yet, dealing with uncertainty is an evolutionary imperative. Without an innate ability to confront the unknown, we would founder in a highly uncertain and potentially dangerous world. Scores of times a day we intuitively and often subconsciously navigate the uncertainties that confront us – in what the weather may do, the level of congestion on our journey to work, how long a particular task may take us to complete, and how our interactions with colleagues or family should really be interpreted.  To be human is to wrestle with uncertainty.

Fortunately, at least in the Western world, most of the daily uncertainties our capricious world sets before us are relatively trivial and the consequences minor.  If we get the weather wrong, we may get wet (this is an especially common outcome in the wetlands of Manchester!)  If we are caught in congestion we may be late for a meeting – annoying but not life threatening.

However in the complex organisational setting of a project to deliver a new aircraft engine for the Airbus 380 or to rid a sensitive natural environment of spent nuclear fuel rods, the consequences of underestimating uncertainty are very serious indeed.  Here the individuals tasked with delivering these projects must be comfortable operating in an environment of high uncertainty.  Daily they must wrestle with technical dilemmas such as to how do we improve engine efficiency, reduce weight and maintain exceptional safety performance, whilst keeping development costs under control and timescales for delivery to the customer realistic.  Or how to minimise the impact of surprises when removing spent nuclear fuel from a container which was sealed shut back in the 1960’s.  These project teams are closely watched over by internal and external industry regulators and a myriad of stakeholders from local communities to government ministers, each of whom has a heightened sense of anxiety to the consequences of any lapses in judgement, or the emergence of uncertainties that lay hitherto dormant deep within the project organisation.  Uncertainty therefore looms large on “to do list” of these individuals who shoulder the responsibility for the delivery of complex, multi-million pound projects in safety-critical industries. Wrestling with uncertainty is a very real and present task for them. And I, for one, am thankful for the skill and judgement of these project managers and their teams, in identifying, making sense of, and confronting uncertainty to keep us safe whilst maximising the chances of successful project delivery.

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