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Uncertainty as Competitive Advantage – A Few Tools

October 11, 2015

I’ve written and spoken extensively on the advantages of uncertainty. Orienting towards uncertainty is a more accurate reflection of reality in the marketplace. It recognizes that all project and organizational performance is delivered by people. And people are, at the core, unknowable and uncertain. But this is also our greatest strength. It is tied to our ability to create, innovate and pull together to accomplish great things. Our greatest accomplishments come from the same core that drives uncertainty. We can use tools like communication, networking and organizational orientation to take advantage of uncertainty.

Building a fort is a good metaphor for explaining how these tools work together to harness uncertainty for great results. But before diving into the metaphor, let me throw out some definitions. I’ll then weave the metaphor into the deeper description of the tools, starting in the networking section.

  • Communication is our primary tool of interaction. It allows us to work together.
  • Networking is how we reach beyond ourselves. We gain knowledge and resources from our network. We spread our influence throughout the people we know.
  • Organizational orientation is how we work together. If we are geared to the knowable we will fail. It limits how we work together. But if we are geared to the unknowable we tap into our strength, creativity and resilience. We gain the unknowable advantage.

Communication

Communication creates objects we can analyze (this is discussed in detail in Part I of Reinventing Communication). We can identify important elements of those objects to find the elements that help us leverage increased uncertainty. Being a Boundary Object is a powerful element for gaining the advantages of uncertainty.

Like “The Force” boundary objects connect us together, without stripping us of our individuality.

My dog is a simple example of a boundary object.

A dog

To my daughter, our dog is her best friend and closest confidant. She jokes that all her secrets would be lost if they ever invented a dog-to-human language translator.

To me, our dog is companion and a pet. He is the first one that greets me when I come home for work. He is often the last one I see before heading up to bed. (He sleeps on the landing of our stairs.)

To our community’s vet, our dog is a patient and complex living organism.

Our dog has different meanings for each of us, based on our roles, background and relationship with the dog. But we always know what we are all talking about when we talk about our dog.

Instead of separating us, a boundary object connects us.

My dog connects me to my children, my home and to our local community. Like all boundary objects my dog builds bridges across boundaries. A boundary object connects us.

We can become more comfortable in working with uncertain and non-predictable environments by becoming good at creating boundary objects. For example, diversity is a tremendous source of competitive advantage. It is a source of uncertainty – which can scare people. This can be cultural diversity, diversity of opinions, diversity of professional disciplines, etc.. By being good at creating boundary objects we can unlock the competitive advantage within that uncertainty.

Networking

Like communication, networking can be studied and mapped. We can isolate specific travel patterns to find which ones help us do great things. It is a combination of the “destinations” we can travel to on our network and how we can get there. The most important combinations are those that help perform Network Bricolage.

Like making a collage, network bricolage is about putting together pieces. It gives us the individual pieces we need to create, without needing to know how we’ll make it ahead of time. Once we have an idea of what we want to do we scrap around to find what we need.

A simple example of network bricolage is a group of kids making a fort for the first time.

The kids don’t know what it is supposed to look like exactly. They don’t exactly know how to make it. They just know they want a fort.

They go around asking other people for the know-how. They collect bits and pieces that look useful. They use the know-how and bits and pieces they collect to build a fort.

Their network has the knowledge of how to make a fort. It has the resources to make the fort. They use network bricolage to connect the knowledge and resources to make the fort a reality.

Mind you, nobody they talk to knows what the fort looks like. Each person may have a completely different image in mind. But the fort is a boundary object, it makes network bricolage faster. And at the end, the kids get a cool fort.

A fortOrganizational Orientation

Orientation is observable. Every organization makes choices about the same elements on how people work together. We can see the choices an organization makes. These choices tell us whether an organization is oriented toward the knowable or unknowable (this is discussed in more detail in Part II of Reinventing Communication).

A powerful element for understanding and changing orientation is who is allowed to talk to whom in an organization. The more an organization chooses who is allowed to talk to whom, the less oriented they are toward uncertainty. This limits what they can do.

What if the kids building the fort could only talk to kids who had built forts out of boxes? Their dad thought that was the right way to build a fort and told them to talk to kids who built box forts.A box fort

This limits the network. They can only talk to box fort builders.

This limits the knowledge they can get from the network. Only box fort building information is useful.

This makes it harder to use the network to get the bits and pieces they need to make a fort. They live in a house full of blankets. But not many boxes. The fort becomes expensive and unobtainable.

The fort is no longer a boundary object. The fort no longer connects. It separates.

At the end, they may learn something about building box forts, but have no fort. They are frustrated and sad. Orientation toward the knowable killed their fort.

Harnessing Uncertainty

The tools discussed in the metaphor can help us harness uncertainty. They help us embrace and unlock the unknowable advantage of uncertainty in each of us, in our project teams and in our organizations.

 

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