Working In Uncertainty

How to be convincing when you are uncertain

Contents

Hidden dangers when you propose an idea

In your job do you ever have to propose ideas? Most people do occasionally and it's a major part of some jobs. Many of us feel that when we do this we have no option but to pretend to be more certain than we really are (or should be) in order to make a strong case for our idea. We talk about the future as if we know what will happen. We gloss over assumptions and make no mention of un-substantiated guesses we are relying on. We take care to look confident that everything will be a success, just as we forecast.

I've done it and I know I'm far from being the only one. Unfortunately, there are two nasty problems with this strategy.

First, we are taking responsibility for outcomes to an extent that is unfair on us. With most good ideas there is an element of uncertainty. That's unavoidable, even with the best management. Why should you take unconditional responsibility for success nobody could guarantee?

Second, not talking about limitations of our knowledge and control leads almost inevitably to not doing anything about them. It can go even further than that. For example, if someone suggests a change to what you propose, such as a precaution or flexible decision point, that would manage uncertainty the instinctive reaction is to fight the change, because to accept it would make you look unsure. The result of not managing competently in the face of uncertainty is often failure.

Fortunately, there is an alternative. You can look convincing even when you are uncertain, without the problems of pretending to be certain.

What bosses really think

I once asked the formidable project management guru, Tom Gilb, what offended him most, uncertainty or its concealment. "Concealment, definitely concealment" he replied. Is there another rational answer? I don't think so and neither do most senior executives.

That's not to say they act in accordance with this belief. Clues from their body language and conversation through to formal management systems like budgeting scream at us that uncertainty is not acceptable. It takes good technique and nerve to avoid the usual trap.

How to look competent instead of clueless

People who are experienced and competent are much better at talking about what is uncertain than people who are not. One of the keys to being convincing even when you are talking openly about what is not known for certain is to say things a bluffer could not. Here are some tactics, in rough sequence of when to use them:

  • Be justly confident in your analysis. Make an effort to analyse the case for your proposal objectively and thoroughly, then plan to present it in that way, and do so. Even if the proposal is not accepted you can still come out of it a winner. It doesn't matter if your knowledge is imperfect if it is still greater than anyone else in the room. Although you are talking about limitations in your knowledge you can still be confident that your analysis is professional (at least, within the limits of the time and other resources given), and so your manner should be firm and confident.

  • Don't take too long. Glib certainty is briefer than realism, but glib certainty is lying. You need to be honest and open, but be careful to keep at the right level and don't talk for too long. Let people know straight away that you are going to talk about areas of uncertainty and what can be done to manage them, and that you will cover unexpectedly high levels of success as well as what could go wrong.

    Examples:

    "I'm not going to go through it all in detail, but in the pack you'll find an analysis of the evidence that went into the forecast, plus analysis of our options under various potential outcomes, both better and worse than expected."

    "We divided our uncertainty into seven major areas and six less important ones. I'm just going to give you an overview of the major areas."

    "This project depends on many uncertain factors and to list them all would be tiresome. What I want to do is explain how we can achieve the flexibility and responsiveness we need to survive in this ferocious market."

  • Reassure that you are going to be as helpful as you can, but make it clear that some factors remain unavoidably uncertain, and for good reasons. It helps to set expectations sensibly, especially if you know your listeners have a tendency towards overconfidence. Also, if you are competing against others then some of them might have feigned certainty on points that are, inevitably, uncertain. If you highlight the difficult areas, with good reasons, then you gently draw attention to lying by your competitors.

    Uncertainty may be unavoidable whatever you do, or just unavoidable at this stage in your work, but be confident about your uncertainty and show you've worked hard to deal with it.

    Examples:

    "Clearly we can't be certain if the sponsors will agree to this proposal."

    "As with any new product there's great uncertainty about how much we can sell, and how quickly sales will grow."

  • Show you've been thinking widely and used your knowledge. Without being a bore, demonstrate knowledge and insight to reinforce your assertions about what is inevitably uncertain. When you mention possible future events and their implications that are important but not obvious you command respect. "Here is someone I must listen to." people will think. What you are showing is sometimes called "situational awareness."

    Examples:

    "If we supply goods in this way it may change their VAT treatment, and that's something we need to check."

    "And another point there is that we may not currently be capturing enough information at the point of sale to do this."

    "There's a new EU Directive that could have significant implications for us, depending on how it is implemented in different countries. It may be that we have to make the change I am proposing in order to comply."

    "The short term impact of this launch is almost certain to be increased sales and profits, but we need to consider the possible erosion of our main positioning through this line extension."

  • Show experience, if you have it. When you mention things that might happen you can refer to past occasions when you've seen exactly what you are talking about, or something similar. Take care when mentioning past failures if those responsible for those past failures are in your present audience!

    Examples:

    "BigCo of course dominates this market and their reaction is crucial. In the past we've seen them crush competitive moves aggressively, even anti-competitively, but we've also seen that they have blindspots and can be very slow to react."

    "One of the reasons I'm proposing this strategy is that if we don't do this we'll have to replace the sales order system some time next year anyway, and without the simplified pricing scheme we could struggle. Think back to 1997 and that's exactly what happened to us in Germany."

  • Show a sense of responsibility. When you mention things that might happen and could affect the outcome of adopting the idea you are proposing you are showing concern for the interests of others.

    Examples:

    "I know that one of your key concerns is to maintain our good relations with BigCustomer plc. Although it would be inappropriate at this stage to discuss the idea with them to get their reaction, we have done a lot of work to analyse how this will look to them, and how their interests might be affected, negatively as well as positively."

    "By doing this project in the stages I've outlined we keep our exposure low throughout."

    "If a bad customer reaction occurred at this point we would be in big trouble and it could affect other products too. Although we're not expecting such a reaction it is still a significant possibility with a fashion product like this so we've devised a plan that reduces the impact of such a reversal."

  • Have a sensible plan that tackles uncertainty. It is vital to show you have ideas for tackling the uncertainty you highlight, in addition to the research you have already done. There are many possibilities. For example, you could suggest a project in phases with decisions points, use prototypes, make new measurements, install new monitoring, and have a back-out plan. If there is uncertainty about the outcome of your proposal that will remain unavoidable it is helpful to show you have considered this and the impact for other people. You may even be able to suggest reasonable actions others can take to manage the uncertainty arising from your idea.

    Examples:

    "We're at an early stage in researching this idea and the next stage will be some testing using a simple prototype."

    "Even once we've done all the research and analysis we can, I think there will still be plenty of scope for surprising outcomes, as with any project like this. We've devised a plan with seven primary methods of managing those outcomes and I'd like to spend a few minutes explaining them."

    "The schedule uncertainty of this project is being managed and tracked using time buffers. It's much more like a relay race than a train schedule, with everyone encouraged to start work as early as they can. I'm fairly confident that we'll complete by 30th June. However, it could be earlier, and possibly could be later. I'll keep you updated weekly on the latest projections and I know you guys are keen to start your part earlier if possible."

  • Identify the evidence behind your projections. Saying where your evidence comes from, even if it is simply someone's subjective estimate, helps listeners understand the extent of uncertainty.

    Examples:

    "A survey of 120 companies by Gartner last year showed that 23% had experienced some kind of incident of this type. Our company is similar to those in that sample, so this is a useful guide."

    "There's no hard data to rely on for this so I've taken the average estimate from three senior marketing managers."

    "I've done a project like this before and, although this one is more complex than my previous experience, my judgement is that 20% is conservative."

  • Give informative predictions, not best guesses. It is a mistake to give a best estimate prediction of results and say no more, but it is also a mistake to refuse to make any predictions at all on the grounds that you have 'no idea'. We always have some idea. Don't shy away from probability statements or probability distributions, even if they are subjective. Probability works, even though gut feelings are notoriously overconfident and most probability numbers are poorly defined. Probability works because most probabilistic forecasts capture more information than a single best guess or a refusal to predict. If you understand probability better then you can define your terms more properly, but this is not essential.

    Examples:

    In answer to the question, "Yes, but what do you really think?", say "We're 70% certain this investment will at least break even."

    "After getting estimates from several people in sales, finance, and marketing, and comparing those with the actual results from similar products we're estimating that the most likely level of sales is about 2m units a month after 1 year. But to give you an idea of the uncertainty there we're 90% sure sales will be between 1.2m and 2.6m units."

    "Although we can't be sure how customers will react it's far more likely that they will be pleased with the new flavours than reject them, based on testing so far."

  • Don't ignore the possibility of unexpectedly helpful turns of events, and outcomes better than the best estimate. A presentation that gives a best guess and then some 'risks' is an unbalanced presentation. Try to be objective, and that means considering the potential for nice surprises as well as nasty ones. Make sure you talk about what should be done if things start going better than expected.

    Examples:

    "On the other hand if the weather is good this summer it's possible we may need to increase capacity so I've looked at some options for doing that."

    "On the whole I think it's more likely that the quality of the creative work we get back will be poor, but if it turns out to be surprisingly good it may be worth being more ambitious and spending more to make use of it."

  • Don't overwhelm with worries, unless you want to. I used to work with a man who was great at killing off bad ideas. "The trouble is..." he would say, and then go through a seemingly endless list of potential problems. Even when none of his objections was fatal he often bored people into submission. If that's what you want to do, fine, but don't do it by accident.

Toughing it out

My personal experience of talking about uncertainty around proposed ideas is that people respect genuine expertise. They feel safer with someone who seems to have a true understanding of the situation, provided that person also has sensible actions to propose.

However, sometimes there are awkward moments and some senior managers do not have a rational attitude to uncertainty. How do you cope under that pressure?

  • Where you're seen as negative and unhelpful. This can happen if you've forgotten to tell people you will cover positive surprises too, or haven't mentioned actions, or have spent too long dwelling on negative details. If this is what has happened then recover by doing the thing you should have done.

    Examples:

    "Sorry, I should have said that I'll be covering our options if sales rise faster than expected in a few moments."

    "I understand why this looks unattractive at this point, but I'll very soon come on to how we can in fact manage those issues and position ourselves if this market really takes off, which it still can."

  • The black and white thinker who doesn't understand uncertainty. Some people just don't get it. They want everything to be black and white. Yes or No but not Maybe. The plan either will work or it won't. To them there are no degrees, and certainly no uncertainty! I personally find this very frustrating. If you know you will be explaining your idea to someone like this then take special care to be quick and confident in your presentation, and stress the management actions available. Assertive people like assertive people, so push back and be confident your uncertainty is justified.

  • You might have got support but didn't. Imagine you follow this advice but your idea is rejected anyway. You wonder if you might have got a different result if you had not been so honest. How much does that matter? You may not have got backing for your idea, but perhaps you impressed with your professionalism. Success and getting your idea accepted are not the same thing. There may have been other factors you did not know about, perhaps the wrong decision was made, or perhaps, just maybe, the idea was not good enough. Gain credibility by showing your ability and it will help you next time.

Conclusion

The bigger the idea the more important it is to be open about uncertainty and the more patience people have for a professional analysis. But if you're not sure you can trust yourself to carry it off then start small and make sure you have a solid technique for when you really need it. The penalties for suppressing uncertainty include failure, loss of credibility, and stress. It's well worth becoming aware of uncertainty suppression and learning not to do it.

Further reading

How to talk openly about uncertainty at work.

Another interesting read is “Embracing uncertainty: the essence of leadership”, by Phillip G Clampitt, Robert J DeKoch, and M E Sharpe, 2001. The authors have a handy overview of their book, free on the web. Click here. They also have various papers on uncertainty suppression and uncertainty communication on their "Other Publications" page.


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Words © 2003 Matthew Leitch. First published 16 October 2003.