The Uncertainty Mindset (soon to become tbd)
The Uncertainty Mindset (soon to become tbd)
Generative uncertainty.

Generative uncertainty.

It's a feature, not a bug.

Hello friends,

Different approaches to farming wheat can illustrate generative uncertainty.

Greetings from Brno, where I’m at the 2023 EBN Congress (the theme is “how the innovation community should approach uncertainty as an opportunity”). I’m trying something new today: an audio version of an essay I wrote as part of preparing the keynote I delivered this morning in Brno.

The tl;dr version:

Uncertainty is always seen as a bad thing — but we’ve got to stop overlooking the good, generative side of uncertainty. In particular, uncertainty is an inescapable feature of innovation work, not a bug to be eliminated. But what makes uncertainty generative? This essay is an answer to that question. I share three general design principles for infusing systems, environments, practices, organizations with generative uncertainty. Illustrated with examples from all over the place, from the Auvergnat low-intervention wine industry, to regenerative population wheat farming in the UK, to an accidental retail innovation incubator in a crumbly shopping mall in Singapore.

And here’s the full text of the essay, with more links and photos: Generative uncertainty.

Links mentioned in the audio

  1. The Uncertainty Mindset: A book about what we can learn from R&D teams in cutting-edge cuisine that have designed themselves to innovate better — in ways that violate conventional business school wisdom.

  2. Introducing not-knowing: An essay identifying different types of not-knowing and explaining why it’s important to distinguish between them.

  3. How to think more clearly about risk: An essay outlining some imprecise ways of thinking about risk.

  4. Unpacking Boris: An essay explaining how to guide a group through the difficult process of identifying and agreeing on acceptable/unacceptable tradeoffs in pursuing shared goals.

Feedback please

I recorded in as close to a single take as I could. Should I be making more audio recordings of essays? What should I do differently or keep the same?

Email me with your thoughts, or leave a comment. I genuinely would like to know.

Some good links

  1. I was on the Interintellect podcast to talk to Linus Lu about epistemological humility, imprecise thinking about risk, the advantages/challenges of not-knowing, false knowledge, and strategy in a world of complicated not-knowing — and a bunch of other stuff. It’s actually good! Even if I do say so myself. Obviously worth a listen:

  2. There was once a time when people refused to believe that rocks could fall from the sky and anyone who said otherwise was derided and made to feel grouchy and not #seen. Nowadays, every other news story is about extraterrestrial spacecraft in government custody (though maybe that’s just yet another psyop). Anyway, when I am feeling grouchy about this project on not-knowing, I think about Ernst Chladni and the origins of modern meteorite research.

  3. What do modern people do all day? I can’t believe some people still haven’t come across Ruben Bolling’s superb update of Richard Scarry, but I feel bound to spread the word. Here is my favourite:

  4. Paul Martin and Jonathan Evans write about how to make your organisation more resilient and cope better when the next crisis hits (🙏 Paul H. for sharing the link)

Coming up

The next session in the Interintellect discussion series will explore the first two types of not-knowing. During “Actions and results,” (22/6/2023, 8-10pm CET), we’ll talk about questions including:

  1. What happens when we admit the possibility that there are actions to be taken that we don’t know about yet, and that they might produce outcomes that we haven’t thought about yet?

  2. How do new technologies and tools change the kinds of actions we could take in any given situation?

  3. How does the increasing complexity and interconnectedness of the world change the types of outcomes we have access to?

  4. How can we think about outcomes that are created or modified by conditions beyond our direct control? 

More information and tickets available here. As usual, get in touch if you want to join but the $15 ticket price isn’t doable — I can sort you out.

See you soon,


The Uncertainty Mindset (soon to become tbd)
The Uncertainty Mindset (soon to become tbd)
On not-knowing—what it is, how it affects us, and how to relate to it—and other stuff.
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Vaughn Tan
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