#49: The work of uncertainty

Fighting fire with fire.

I’m Vaughn Tan; this is another of my weekly attempts to make sense of the state of not-knowing. The first issue explains what the newsletter is about; you can see all the issues here.

My first book, The Uncertainty Mindset, is a behind-the-scenes look at cutting-edge high-end cuisine … and what it can teach us about designing organizations to be more adaptable and innovative. You can get it hereIf you like it, help me out by leaving a review somewhere. Book events are coming soon—tell me what you’d like to see and sign up for notifications here.

Hello again, friends,

tl;dr: Today, valuable work is the work of uncertainty: work that requires continual adaptation and innovation. Open-endedness creates uncertainty in roles, while negotiated joining creates uncertainty in how roles develop. Uncertainty in roles and how they develop is what allows and motivates people and teams to continually adapt and innovate. And this process of continual change is how they become able to do the valuable work of uncertainty.

It’s been rainy and grey here, infrequently punctuated by the rare bright day. But that’s OK because it makes staying in to get some work done feel less like a betrayal of fundamental life principles. Outside the window everything is green and mousserons are growing in the yard.

Last week’s issue on open-endedness in roles triggered some strong reactions.

By email, someone suggested that “open-ended roles lead to easy manipulation of workers. Slowly expanding or changing roles without accurate pay. In [redacted industry] people are all very hungry to make it, and to learn as much as they can. It’s easy for management to slowly increase someone’s responsibilities under the guise of career growth, without added pay and/or even acknowledging the work load.”

This is totally true.

Scope-creep like this happens all the time, especially at the kind of company which attracts people who want to be or actually are ambitious. Having gone through something of the sort while at Google, when management possibly mistook me for someone hankering to climb a corporate ladder, it is sometimes even possible to imagine that management is scope-creeping an employee’s role out of a genuine and goodhearted desire to offer opportunities for personal growth and career development.


Leaving aside this benign case, organizations (acting through management) often seem to take as much as they can from workers without giving back to them in fair measure. Generally, the more powerful the organization is relative to the worker, the more likely it is that open-ended roles result in exploitation of the worker to the advantage of the employer.

The least powerful workers today—and at every time in history before this—are those who can be easily replaced or who perform work perceived by the organization to be of low value. These workers are more likely to be exploited when their roles aren’t clearly specified and bounded, and they are the ones who are the first to be replaced by outsourcing, offshoring, and automation. Unionization and some employment law is designed to prevent this kind of thing and protect these kinds of workers.

But what about the powerful workers, those who aren’t fungible because the organization perceives that their skills are rare and the work they do is of great value? These days, the work perceived to be most valuable is

  1. High-level management: caring for and feeding unpredictable humans and balancing their capricious relationships.

  2. High-level strategy: divining the otherwise hidden secrets of an unpredictable business environment and navigating its pitfalls.

  3. High-level innovation: seeing into the fog of the unpredictable future to see the path forward.

Which is to say, work perceived as valuable is work that cannot be fully defined and specified in advance—the work of uncertainty. It’s no coincidence that none of this valuable work can yet be replaced by robots or algorithms.

Combining open-ended roles and negotiated joining really makes sense only for these types of valuable workers and this type of valuable work. And open-ended roles need negotiated joining to be useful in creating high-performing teams that can innovate and adapt to change, and vice-versa. You can have one without the other, but it probably won’t result in a flexible, adaptable, innovative organization.

Negotiated joining is time- and effort-intensive and very inefficient when the job to be done is clearly specified and stable—most work that can be done by a robot or algorithm is clearly specified and stable in this way. What’s the point of spending all this time on trial and error figuring out what an employee needs to do when the answer is both well-understood and unchanging? A stable and comprehensively defined role makes more sense in that situation. Conventional hiring practices work well for filling these kinds of stable, well-defined jobs.

This is why open-ended roles are only necessary and important when the work to be done isn’t well-understood and may be emergent—when it is valuable work that requires the worker to navigate uncertainty.

For the work of uncertainty, having stable roles is counterproductive because the demands of the work quickly evolve past the scope of the job description and continue to evolve. In contrast, open-endedness allows roles to evolve as the work to be done becomes clearer—and the trial and evaluation involved in negotiated joining is what drives that role evolution. Open-endedness creates the space for adaptation, negotiation of the open-ended role fills this space with something useful.

So I should have been clear last week that I definitely do not mean that open-ended roles and negotiated joining are suited to all workers and all organizations. For workers perceived to be of low value, open-ended roles often lead to worker exploitation. And for work that is stable and already well-understood, negotiated joining is unnecessarily inefficient and expensive for the organization.

The situation is different for workers perceived to be of high value, doing the work of uncertainty. The threat of rare, valued workers walking away prevents employers from being assholes about ambiguously defined roles. And the combination of open-ended roles and negotiated joining allows roles to evolve as the needs of the organization change and as the worker’s skills and inclinations evolve—precisely what’s needed for the work of uncertainty.

You could think of it as fighting fire with fire: uncertainty in roles and how they develop is what allows and motivates people and teams to continually evolve and adapt. This continual evolution and adaptation is how they become able to do the work of uncertainty.

If I were building a startup, an R&D team, or the senior leadership team of a company facing an uncertain business environment, I would use open-ended roles and negotiated joining—if I were building a team to work on well-understood, stable problems I would probably stick to conventional HR “best practices.”

That road is closed.

Bonus: If you missed the Project Feed session on innovating through uncertainty, you can watch the recording here. This is Yishan’s summary:

“We saw some grainy photos in kitchens, parsed the difference between risk and uncertainty. We plumbed the depths of what enables teams to rapidly mobilise around a problem set or advance products and outputs entirely unknowable in advance, and explored the breadths of non-linear career trajectories, breakdown moments (leading to new directional pursuits), incepting entrepreneurial behaviour in org rank and file, and whether Chinese cooking innovates in more constraints viz Western/Japanese/Peruvian (and other food canons?)!”

Photos from the field: Until Issue #52, each week I’ll post a few photos of everyday work in culinary R&D teams selected from the thousands I took during fieldwork for the book.

External storage (at the Fat Duck, 2011).

Another unsuccessful prototype (at Amaja, 2011).

Important instructions (at the Cooking Lab and Intellectual Ventures, 2012).

By the way: This newsletter is hard to categorize and probably not for everyone—but if you know unconventional thinkers who might enjoy it, please share it with them.

Share The Uncertainty Mindset

Find me on the web at www.vaughntan.org, on Twitter @vaughn_tan, on Instagram @vaughn.tan, or by email at <uncertaintymindset@vaughntan.org>. You can also find out more about my book at www.uncertaintymindset.org.