#36: Ready for the unexpected

This is yet another of Vaughn Tan’s weekly attempts to make sense of the state of not-knowing. The first issue explains the project; you can see all the issues here. My book, The Uncertainty Mindset, is about uncertainty, innovation … and cutting-edge cuisine. It’s officially out on July 28, but you can already get the ebook worldwide and you can pre-order physical books.

An organization acts differently when it thinks of the future using the risk mindset compared to the uncertainty mindset—even when the situation it faces is exactly the same.

To have a cartoonishly simplistic but concrete example, let’s consider the situation some restaurants face today in the context of coronavirus and reopening after a long lockdown.

Imagine a restaurant operating with the risk mindset. It assumes that it will be permitted to reopen and serve dine-in customers with 2m physical distancing until the end of 2020. Some actions it takes are:

  • It keeps largely the same menu, modifying the menu items and pricing only as much as needed to accommodate fewer covers and fewer staff.

  • It brings back some (but not all) kitchen and front of house staff who had been put on temporary leave.

The same restaurant with the uncertainty mindset assumes that it might be permitted to reopen for dine-in with 2m distancing, but that much remains unknown—including how much demand there is to eat in restaurants, whether there will be further lockdowns or suspensions of dine-in trade, or whether there will be a coronavirus vaccine or therapy. Some actions it takes are:

  • It redesigns the menu completely by reducing the pricing and number of items and changing each item to be suitable for both dine-in and takeaway, and communicates this to its customers.

  • It surveys its staff and brings back only those who are willing to be flexible about their role (e.g., front of house doing deliveries; kitchen doing a different kind of menu).

Reopening day comes. The restaurant is initially quieter than expected. There are few bookings and few walk-ins. A few days in, things pick up and the restaurant is as full as it can be with physical distancing. Several weeks pass and coronavirus infections spike—the local authority resists a full lockdown but is compelled to suddenly suspend dine-in trade for an unpredictable duration.

If the restaurant had the risk mindset, it is now flummoxed. Its actions did not prepare it for a future that was not within its expectations. It has to scramble to change what it does—perhaps by going back to a takeout model—to adapt. There is also the inevitable trauma from having to fundamentally change its worldview about how predictable the future is.

If the restaurant had the uncertainty mindset, the future that has become reality is unfortunate but not unexpected because it had minimal expectations about the predictability of the future in the first place. Its actions let it adapt nearly instantly. The menu is ready to flip to takeout and the staff are willing (and were psychologically prepared) to change roles. There’s less trauma from having the future be revealed as uncertain if uncertainty was expected from the beginning.

This thought experiment highlights how different ways of thinking about the future lead organizations to act differently … and how different the consequences of such mindsets can be in situations of true uncertainty.

Thinking of the future as risky—having a risk mindset—means planning for specific futures that are already imagined, and for which probabilities are already known, then taking action based on those assumptions. In contrast, having the uncertainty mindset means planning for the assumption that futures cannot be completely imagined in advance, and acting based on those assumptions.

The uncertainty mindset leads organizations to act in ways that allow them to carry on as normal when the future turns out to be uncertain. And being ready for the unexpected is likely to be really valuable right now.

(This is true for people too.)

It goes to show you never can tell.


Find me on the web at www.vaughntan.org, on Twitter @vaughn_tan, on Instagram @vaughn.tan, or by email at <uncertaintymindset@vaughntan.org>.