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How Uncertainty Benefits Boards & Decision-Making Processes


How uncertainty benefits boards decision making processes

Our world is experiencing a period of profound transformation, marked by disruption, volatility, and chaos that have become the norm. In this new reality, executive leaders and Board Directors must cultivate the ability to navigate uncertainty with patience, tolerance for tension and paradox, and an unflappable demeanour in the face of anxiety.

Global events and technological advancements have created unprecedented levels of complexity that demand a new level of responsibility from boards. The expectation of being “all-knowing” is simply unrealistic, and traditional approaches to decision-making – such as rapid response, tighter control, and performativity – only hinder critical thinking and limit imagination. Such methods are no longer fit for purpose.

As we enter this evolutionary phase of humankind, we must embrace a new way of thinking and responding to ambiguity. For boards, this means developing the capacity to be more adaptive in their decision-making processes. It requires a shift in mindset that recognises the need for constant evolution and continuous learning. Boards must be willing to take risks, embrace new ideas, and be prepared to operate in an environment of constant change.

In this context, the role of Board Directors has never been more critical. They must be equipped with the tools and resources necessary to navigate this new reality with confidence and clarity of purpose. They must collaborate effectively with stakeholders, including employees, customers, and shareholders, to drive sustainable growth and value creation. Above all, they must be prepared to embrace uncertainty and ambiguity as opportunities for growth and transformation.

In today’s constantly evolving business landscape, responding to disruption requires a new way of strategic thinking. It is no longer enough for directors and leaders to rely solely on what they know; they must learn to work with what they don’t know and embrace the uncertainty that comes with it. The challenge lies in breaking free from outdated modes of conformity and impression management and embracing positive uncertainty.

Developing the ability to deal positively with uncertainty

So how can boards shift their thinking to operate more effectively in unknown environments and respond to crises while maintaining oversight of an organisation’s function? The key lies in developing what John Keats called ‘negative capability’ – the ability to deal positively with uncertainty, complexity, paradox, ambiguity, and the anxiety that comes with not knowing what to do next.

This concept is not new but continues to be underrated. Research in organisational behaviour supports the idea that when anxiety associated with not knowing is managed effectively, it can create a creative space for new ideas to emerge. It is a space where further learning and innovation can take place.

To operate from a position of positive uncertainty, boards must be willing to let go of the assumption that they must always know what they are doing. Instead, they must be willing to take risks, challenge the status quo, and embrace the unknown. This requires a shift in mindset that values curiosity, experimentation, and continuous learning.

Moreover, boards must also cultivate a culture of resilience that encourages employees to be adaptable and resourceful in the face of uncertainty. This means creating a safe space for employees to voice their concerns and ideas and fostering collaboration and experimentation.

The ability to operate from a position of positive uncertainty is critical for boards and leaders in navigating disruption and driving innovation in today’s fast-paced business environment. By embracing ambiguity and complexity and creating a culture of resilience and experimentation, boards can position their organisations for sustained success in the years ahead.

When faced with a volatile and uncertain business environment, boards can experience unprecedented challenges that require them to navigate ambiguity and paradox to respond to disruptive events effectively. The ability to sit with uncertainty and reflect on the experience is critical in developing new ways of thinking about decision-making processes.

Having faith in collective knowledge

One of the keys to coping with paradox and ambiguity is having faith in the collective knowledge, expertise, and skills of the Board or executive team. By engaging with others and creating a space for open dialogue, boards can work together to create new opportunities and prospects, rather than immediately resorting to a defensive response of ‘this is impossible’. This requires active listening, patience, and a willingness to pause and reflect on whether or not to react to a given situation.

Significantly, this way of working should not compromise regular oversight, adherence to regulations or undermine the Board’s commitment to integrity and ethics. Instead, it should integrate all of these factors with the capacity to stay with the cognitive challenge of not knowing. This involves being curious, willing to learn, and engaging effectively with one another to generate new ideas and perspectives.

Ultimately, coping with paradox and ambiguity requires a mindset shift that values uncertainty as an opportunity for growth and innovation rather than as a threat to be avoided. It involves a willingness to embrace the unknown and challenge conventional thinking to find new ways of operating in a fast-paced and constantly changing business environment.

By cultivating a culture of openness, collaboration, and curiosity, boards can position their organisations to thrive in disruption and uncertainty. This requires a commitment to ongoing learning and development and a willingness to embrace new ways of thinking and working together.

Sitting in uncertainty is not simply a passive act

Sitting in uncertainty is, in fact, a strategic move. It allows for a space of contemplation, where the Board can collectively access their knowledge, expertise and skills, integrate this with patience, active listening and pausing on ‘reacting’ or not ‘doing’.

The idea of ‘negative capability’ provides a powerful lens through which to view the act of sitting in uncertainty. It is the ability to dwell in the liminal space of not knowing and being open to new insights and perspectives. It is not about waiting for the future to unfold but actively shaping it.

In the context of the Board, sitting in uncertainty means resisting the urge to jump to a solution immediately but engaging in deep listening and dialogue with stakeholders. It means being willing to challenge one’s assumptions and biases and remain open to the perspectives of others. It requires a willingness to embrace ambiguity and paradox and to explore the tensions that arise from conflicting goals and priorities.

Ultimately, sitting in uncertainty is about developing a new way of being. It is a mindset that values exploration, experimentation, and learning. It requires a willingness to embrace discomfort, to be vulnerable, and to take risks. The ability to sit in uncertainty cannot be developed overnight but requires ongoing practice and reflection. As the world becomes more complex and uncertain, the ability to sit in uncertainty will be a critical skill for boards and executive leaders.

Letting go of preconceived notions and embracing the unknown

It is a strength to be willing to take risks and explore unconventional solutions, even if they are uncomfortable or unfamiliar. It is about breaking away from the traditional modes of conformity and embracing the disruptive forces shaping our world.

Creating an environment where doubt is acceptable and thriving means that boards can become more adaptable and innovative in their decision-making processes. This requires a shift in mindset from a reactive stance to a proactive and strategic one. It means being open to new ideas, engaging with others to create new opportunities, and embracing uncertainty.

By doing so, boards can foster a culture of inquiry and learning that enables them to better understand the complex and chaotic dynamics inherent in disruption. They can also build stronger relationships with stakeholders as they demonstrate a willingness to listen, engage, and act in the face of uncertainty.

Sitting in uncertainty requires courage, patience, and a willingness to embrace ambiguity. But it is through this process of reflection and self-discovery, boards can develop the capacity to navigate the challenges and opportunities that lie ahead. By creating a culture of inquiry and learning, they can build better boards that are equipped to face the complexities of our rapidly changing world.


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