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  • Marnie Suss

how to navigate uncertainty in decision-making

Updated: Dec 7, 2023

In a rapidly changing and unpredictable world, decision-making can be a formidable task, especially when the stakes are high. Nevertheless, by embracing uncertainty, we can mitigate its influence and make more informed choices.

Data driven decision-making is one of the primary methods leaders use to reduce uncertainty. But data also has its limitations. Recognizing these voids empowers decision-makers to accommodate the risks posed by the unknown.

Some common examples of how to address uncertainty include:

  • Incorporating a buffer into the project's budget.

  • Cross-training teams to handle potential disruptions.

  • Developing alternative scenarios and preparing multiple communication plans.

  • Temporarily delaying or pausing significant decisions.

  • Adopting a more conservative approach for riskier decisions.

the certainty of uncertainty

In hurricane planning and preparedness, meteorologists and researchers have significantly improved hurricane forecasts and models. However, they are the first to acknowledge that it's far from perfect. With each product they also issue a confidence level to inform users of the degree of uncertainty.

These products play a crucial role in helping cities prepare, plan, and make decisions, serving as a prime example of effectively working with uncertainty rather than against it.

For example, you might have come across the "cone of uncertainty" on the news or the weather channel. Unfortunately, this graphic is often misunderstood. The cone represents the most probable track of the storm's center or eye and is composed of linked circles, each corresponding to a specific time frame in the forecast. It represents data for a specific moment, but it continually changes with each new set of data.

Professionals well-versed in interpreting these visual products understand their nuances and limitations. They use this understanding to account for the unknowns in their preparations and decision-making processes. A city may decide to communicate to more people to optimize preparedness, ensuring that more people are ready, even if they might not be directly impacted.

Despite these efforts, the "cone of uncertainty" often becomes the "cone of some certainty" in the eyes of the average person. They tend to misinterpret the graphic, assuming a higher level of certainty than it actually conveys. This is a perfect illustration of human behavior, as people often seek evidence to support their desired outcomes. (By my second Hurricane season, I stopped counting how many times I had to explain or clarify the graphic. To this day I have a love/hate for this visual.)

While some see the positive space covered by the cone and interpret it with unwarranted certainty, crisis managers are trained to explore the negative space of what is missing or uncertain.

This graphic's problematic nature stems from the fact that people living in the projected area sometimes believe they are outside the risk zone, which is incorrect. The cone represents where the storm's center could potentially be, and if it lands on the edge, its impacts—such as wind, rain, and storm surge—can reach far beyond the cone.

As a result, communicating the risks associated with hurricanes to the public, friends, and family becomes challenging due to this common misunderstanding.

So, what lessons can we draw from this example of navigating uncertainty?

The context of the uncertainty is critical.

Different decision-makers may require different tools to manage uncertainty effectively. Understanding the user's knowledge and experience is crucial when creating products and data analysis tools to ensure accurate and efficient interpretation.

Don’t sacrifice clarity and understanding for transparency.

Leaders must acknowledge and address uncertainty in their decision-making process, but it may not be appropriate to share all the details if it will distort the message. Instead, clear and simple communication about the scope of unknowns is essential when engaging with stakeholders, including the public and media. This helps manage expectations and avoids potential misunderstandings.

Leaders set the tone and appetite for managing uncertainty.

Rather than fearing uncertainty, adopting the right mindset can turn it into a valuable opportunity for leaders. Embracing the unknown allows for experimentation, flexibility, and innovation within an organization. Often, managing uncertainty leads to creative solutions, even when faced with challenging decisions.

By integrating these insights into decision-making processes, leaders can navigate uncertainty more adeptly, fostering a culture of adaptability and resourcefulness that contributes to successful outcomes even in uncertain times.

Cover Image: Responding to Superstorm Sandy in New York City in 2012. I spent the night on the U.S.S. Wright docked off of Staten Island during the Nor'easter that hit the city following Sandy.



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