The uncertainty mindset

A weekly newsletter about not-knowing in organizational and daily life.

Greetings to readers old and new. This newsletter is part intellectual exploration and part practical discovery about how to deal with not-knowing—it is also free self-therapy. You can see every issue here.

My first book, The Uncertainty Mindset, is a behind-the-scenes look at cutting-edge high-end cuisine … and what it teaches us about designing better organizations. You can get it here. If you like the book, help me out by leaving a review somewhere.


What this is all about

We’ve had the beginnings of a theory of true uncertainty since the early 20th century, but we continue to conflate risk and uncertainty in how we think about the future and how we act to make that future a reality. To take just one example, the global financial crisis of 2008 was precipitated by banks and investors who used a risk-management approach to act in a situation which was complex, interconnected, and thus truly uncertain. Uncertainty requires a fundamentally different approach to thinking about action than risk. But we appear to not be learning from the increasingly problematic consequences of this confusion—risk and uncertainty are still thought of as essentially interchangeable.

Nearly every country’s response to coronavirus shows how we urgently need better and more systematic thinking about uncertainty as the world becomes increasingly more complex and interconnected and thus more uncertain.

This newsletter is my attempt at doing that. Each week, I’ll explore aspects of what I call the uncertainty mindset—a mindset that acknowledges uncertainty and incorporates it in decisions about action.

Topics tend to range widely, but here are some clusters of note:

On uncertainty in writing and publishing

  1. #40, 5/8/2020: Explains how it took me nearly a decade to get a book published.

  2. #41, 12/8/2020: How sharing work in progress makes ideas better (including book ideas!)

  3. #42, 19/8/2020: Who The Uncertainty Mindset is for, and how traditional publishing is incompatible with ambiguity in books.

On designing personal training programs for uncertainty

  1. #27, 6/5/2020: Explains two design principles for training programs in dealing with uncertainty.

  2. #28, 13/5/2020: How pizza dough can teach uncertainty management.

  3. #29, 20/5/2020: More about flour, dough, and designing routines to develop capacity to manage uncertainty.

  4. #39, 29/7/2020: On actions that are consistent with the uncertainty mindset.

On how businesses should respond to uncertainty

  1. #36, 8/7/2020: How businesses can be ready for unexpected change in the business environment.

  2. #23, 8/4/2020: Four things businesses should do when suddenly plunged into uncertainty.

  3. #17, 26/2/2020: How to set goals when things are uncertain.

  4. #16, 19/2/2020: How businesses should hire when they’re not sure what new employees will need to do.

On understanding and responding to coronavirus uncertainty

  1. #18, 4/3/2020: Explains why coronavirus represents true uncertainty, and why the precautionary principle is appropriate for responding to it.

  2. #19, 11/3/2020: Explains apparently unreasonable countermeasures are the only sensible response to coronavirus. Unfortunately, this issue has aged far too well in the context of numerous countries that failed to take unreasonable countermeasures.

  3. #20, 19/3/2020: Explains how to progressively respond in a sensible, non-alarmist way to increasing uncertainty. Also, how to build useful and useable emergency food stores.

  4. #21, 25/3/2020: An argument that taking insufficient action against coronavirus will be more expensive than implementing early and disproportionate countermeasures against it. Slightly too late, this issue is now being debated actively.


Find me elsewhere 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 read more about my new book at www.uncertaintymindset.org.