The most important skill (in business & life)

There are many skills that are key to your success in business and life. Emotional intelligence, leadership, empathy, storytelling, influence, analytical skills, learning & growth-mindset, public speaking, fundraising, recruitment, and domain-specific expertise are amongst those.

But in modern times, characterized by constant change and information overload, the most important skill of all, without a shadow of a doubt, is navigating uncertainty. This is true for all levels of leadership in any organization, but is especially critical for the CEOs and CTOs, for whom this is the key aspect of their responsibilities.

Skillfully dealing with uncertainty is key for individuals, our companies, institutions and the entire nations. Making good decisions in the face of uncertainty, ambiguity and unpredictability is what separates winners from losers at different levels of our society.

Setting the right course into the unknown and the ability to stay it, or alter in response to changing circumstances, is an art that is only partially supported by science. Equally important is your ability to solve problems as they arise along the way.

Dealing with uncertainty is what set humans apart

Uncertainty surrounds us everywhere, is overwhelming, and shows no signs of abating. It has always surrounded us as a species, and we’ve always struggled to deal with it in different ways.

Humanity advanced in large part because of the plurality of the methods the different groups of our forebears employed. This combined with our ability to copy the winners and abandon the failed, or less effective, ways as the results unfolded.

Had we used just one method and failed, the consequences could have been fatal. The multitude of ideas we followed greatly improved our chances of survival and success.

The process, which still continues, is far from linear and predictable. Innumerable threads are being woven together into the tapestry of our collective and individual lives. Clarity and methods are slowly emerging from the chaos of always unfolding human history.

Uncertainty cannot be avoided

There is no known way of avoiding uncertainty and staying safe in your comfort zone, while aiming for extraordinary results. Oftentimes we cannot even maintain our status quo, as the world around us is changing and uncertainty is coming knocking on our doors.

And as sailors at sea, who have their sails and rudder but cannot control the wind and waves, we can only exert control over a limited range of factors, with the overwhelming majority of external circumstances being out of our direct influence.

This means that we cannot plan the path in which we will travel with minutiae detail, and then stick to it regardless of the circumstances. We cannot even be certain of the destination, because the landscape we are traveling is constantly shifting.

We have to stay flexible and nimble, keenly tuned to the environment around us, but also use our smarts and ability to plan & strategize to maximize the chance and size of the expected outcomes.

Smart approaches to dealing with the unknown

Even though we cannot predict the future, we do have to have a plan, and a method of keeping it relevant as we are moving and learning about the changing circumstances.

In business, and life, we need to use what we know, keep expanding the horizons of our knowledge, and make educated guesses and bets to come up with the plans that have the best chance of succeeding.

This is largely a collective effort, as at any given time many people are usually trying to achieve the same breakthroughs, and there are many paths that have been traveled by others before. However, in business things are often done in secret, and it is not always possible to learn from the successes and failures of others.

Observing others is the cheapest and least risky method of deciding what works and what doesn’t. The alternative is implementing experiments and making bets that may cost us more in terms of time, effort and resources.

Sometimes we have no option but to follow that expensive and risky path, especially when we want to create something new and unique that has not been done before.

Avoiding stagnation and complacency

With greater risk comes a promise of greater reward, however unless this is well calculated, planned and grounded in solid foundations, the risk of rewards never materializing may be too severe.

From the perspective of time, some of the methods turn out to be better than others, and hence promote the groups that are using them. But we cannot be sure if any of them are truly optimal. Things could have been done differently, with different outcomes, and we have no way of knowing the outcomes that have not transpired, or the destinations of the paths we did not follow.

The winning methods are established in a long and painful process, at great effort, risk and cost – borne by us or (mostly) others – including the many failed approaches that we learnt not to follow and eliminated along the way.

That is why we gradually tend to repeat what has proven successful in the past, and stop experimenting with anything new, because the chances of it being better than the old ways are diminishing, and the risk of failure too severe to bear.

This is how dogma, complacency and reluctance to take risks are creeping into our businesses and lives.

This is a dangerous approach which makes us more exposed to unpredictable changes, and is the antithesis of the effective way of dealing with uncertainty.

Principles for navigating uncertainty

Being cautious is important, but we cannot avoid the risk. Not if we want to stay where we are, and even less so if we want to achieve more.

But being brave and adventurous is not enough either.

Part of the problem with uncertainty is that even if we decide to embrace the effort, pain and cost, we cannot be certain of the outcomes. All we know is that not doing anything is the only way of being certain – that the results of such inaction will be unsatisfactory.

But there are sound approaches to navigating, or dealing with, uncertainty – strategies and principles that maximize your chance of success.

I will discuss the key principles that I’ve employed in my life and businesses with good results, and saw working for my clients too, in my next articles from the mini-series “The principles for navigating uncertainty”.

In those pieces I will also reveal the not-so-good (or even outright bad & stupid) alternatives that I’ve fallen for before which cost me a lot of nerves, cash and time. Sounds interesting? Stay tuned!

And how are you dealing with uncertainty? What works for you and what doesn’t? I’d love to hear your take.

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Rafal Bergman
Rafal Bergman
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