Climbing into the void

Maybe it’s the political atmosphere or the still felt aftershocks of the credit crunch from ten years ago – but uncertainty still seems to be the watchword of the day.

Lots of clichés tumble out about the U word. We are told markets can’t stand it, in commerce firms sell solutions and boast how they can eradicate it; and for many religions certainty is their stock in trade, indeed they often promote their priests and prophets as Merchants of Certainty. Uncertainty must be banished if not eliminated.

One aspect of uncertainty that bears closer examination is how it relates to our progress through life and on the career ladder. I must say straightaway I dislike the term ladder, and think most people will find the better metaphor is a maze. We make good and bad decisions, lucky and unlucky turns in our careers and life; it’s not really a ladder we are on, more often happenstance and some stumbling along the way – just like a maze.

But as we post rationalise our previous decisions and actions we smooth out the wrong turns and bumps, attribute good luck to personal ability and try to remove bad luck from our memories. So the comforting image of the ladder redolent with a sure steady path is what we cling to. The now seemingly inevitable ascent is carefully plotted in the career history and our achievements gradually accumulate in neat order.

Now this creates a lovely feeling of control and certainty, almost as if our success was pre-ordained! Interestingly in the early stages of this climb, things are genuinely certain, from our early school days there are timetables and structure, exams and well mapped out decision points; this carries on into university though students tell themselves they are “breaking the rules”.

On entering work, again things are often pretty structured, corporate hierarchies, the demands of company values and mission statements all build the certainty cocoon. But somewhere up this ladder or more likely bumping around in the maze, things change. As we get promoted and take on more responsibility and decision making we find we are exposed to far more uncertainty. The rules based command & control structures don’t work so well in the messy slippery world of big decision making. New markets, new products, new regulations can all contribute to more of the U word.

So all that training in obeying rules and sticking to plans (as opposed to constant planning) can become redundant if not positively wrongheaded. As we climb further up we enter a void. Very different, and often totally new and unfamiliar skills and approaches are now needed, as many of the previous rules and structures fall away. This is a world where difficult questions are more important than simple answers, and are not addressed by past certainties and so called solutions.

It always fascinates me when someone has risen through the ranks of an organisation – they have somehow managed to switch from the certainty environment to the difficult slippery world of the unknown. This is a rare quality.

Wellington put it well when he said “All the business of war, and indeed all the business of life, is to endeavour to find out what you don’t know by what you do; that’s what I called ‘guessing what was at the other side of the hill.’”

Perhaps this an element in The Peter Principle – do we get promoted to the level where the uncertainties start to overwhelm us?