The Uncertainty Mindset 2019-2020

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#2: Degrees of freedom

Vaughn Tan6th January 2021 at 5:02pm

This issue is about building adaptable teams and organizations that can deal with uncertainty. To get there, I start with thinking about the implications of the kind of work in which plans must evolve in real-time to accommodate emergent challenges—this is the work of uncertainty.

What produces real value in such work is freedom to act. To be executed well the operator must be in the moment, because she has many degrees of freedom available. This gives her many ways to fail but also unexpected ways in which to succeed. (In contrast, the work that is designed to be certain and predictable has limited freedom as much as possible to reduce the number of ways failure can occur—it also prevents any possibility of unexpected success.)

The amount of freedom designed into teams and the work they do is directly connected to their ability to find new affordances to exploit or new ways to exploit existing affordances, and thus to how responsive and adaptable those teams can be. Designing organizations to incorporate a large number of degrees of freedom comes with a tradeoff which is essential to make but hard to accept: the potential for adaptability and responsiveness comes with the potential for unanticipated disaster. The flip side is that a highly constrained organization may work well when things go according to plan, but may crumble when things do not.

The essential insights here are:

  1. Responsiveness and adaptation to external uncertainty requires freedom to act.
  2. Freedom to act creates potential for internal uncertainty.
  3. An organization’s ability to respond to external uncertainty is created by embracing internal uncertainty.

Quality results from freedom.

You can find it here: #2: Degrees of freedom