Embrace uncertainty - the family version

Posted by Marcus Hammarberg on October 27, 2014
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The one talk that made the most impact of me have to be "Embrace Uncertainty" by Dan North. If you haven't seen it... You're dead to me Please view it now!

Dan North - Embracing Uncertainty from NDC Conferences on Vimeo.

The thing that stuck the most for me in there was the short, and depressing, sentence:
We are rather wrong than uncertain. 
Meaning simply that we would rather run with something that we know for a fact to be wrong than to live with uncertainty. We are very uncomfortable with uncertainty. But for those that can embrace it there's other type of control and "certainty" to be had.

Now... I'm beginning to think that this comes to us from an early age. I've done studies... the last one was this Saturday at the mall, with Albert (6).

Here's the conversation we had at McDonalds:

Albert; When is mum back?
Me: I don't know.
Albert: But I want to know when!
Me: After she's done shopping.
Albert: When is that?
Me: Told you - I don't know.
Albert: But when?
Me: In 9 minutes.
Albert: Ah. Thanks. ... That's like 2 hours right?
[She came back after 24 minutes]

I didn't have any contact with her and hence couldn't know when she would come back. Neither could she since she was looking for a specific thing. She didn't know if the store carried the item.

Albert was rather wrong (or rather fed the wrong information) than being uncertain. In a situation where the only fact was that we could not know when she came back.

Note also that 9 minutes was totally made up. And that Albert didn't have any concept of 9 minutes. It's not now. That's the only thing he cared about.

This is of course contrived. Or not. Because this conversation reminds me of many conversations I've been in, where "I don't know" simply was not accepted. This has not only to do with estimates (which I think sometimes can be useful), but let me share a conversation I've had with a high-ranking project manager at one of Swedens biggest insurance companies:

PL: So how long will it take you to finish this service?
Me: I haven't got an idea. We don't even know what it supposed to do yet. Kinda make estimating harder.
PL: But come on, give a ball park estimate.
Me: 100000 hours!
PL: Seriously! That's way to much!
Me: 4 hours
PL: Really... you don't want to do this? That's way to low?
Me: No you wrong. I want to do this - I cannot however. I know too little about the problem.

[30 seconds of silence as we were pondering our situation]
PL: So what do you think then?
Me: 458 hours.
PL: Yeah, that sounds reasonable.

And yes, the 458 was in the Gannt Chart later. And we got beaten up for missing the deadline.

Neither Albert nor the project manager (tm) could handle the uncertainty. Or could even try to look for other questions to ask that would have given them other kinds of control.
Could I?
If I cannot have the certainty you are looking for, am I willing to accept other kinds?


Published by Marcus Hammarberg on Last updated