In this edition of Author Talks, McKinsey Global Publishing’s Astrid Sandoval chats with Nathan Furr, an associate professor at INSEAD, and Susannah Harmon Furr, a designer, entrepreneur, and art historian, about their new book, The Upside of Uncertainty: A Guide to Finding Possibility in the Unknown (Harvard Business School Press, July 2022). Embracing an unpredictable world can be hard, yet stepping into uncertainty is often the only way to innovate. To help people reframe uncertainty as an opportunity for positive change—rather than an anxiety-inducing unknown—the authors have collected more than 30 accessible tools to use when navigating uncharted waters. An edited version of the conversation follows.
What was the motivation for writing this book together?
Nathan Furr: The Upside of Uncertainty is about the tools that successful innovators, creators, and designers use for navigating the uncertainty that comes with doing anything new, or the uncertainty that happens to us that we weren’t expecting.
Susannah Harmon Furr: Nathan is a professor of technology strategy. We met as freshmen in undergrad and took philosophy classes and writing classes together. He’s also been trained as a poet, in creative writing. Ultimately, he is a wonderful thinker and writer about technology, ideas, and innovation. What else? We’re married. He’s the father of our four kids, and I’m the mom.
Nathan Furr: Susannah is an entrepreneur, an innovator, a designer, and she’s the person in the family who is good at handling uncertainty. While I am the nerd who wants to study uncertainty and how to navigate it because I’m not good at that, Susannah is the person who is naturally capable. She’s quite an important guide on the journey through uncertainty.
I have been interviewing innovators for about 20 years as part of my work. One thing that struck me is that to do anything new, every innovator I studied had to step into really significant uncertainty. It fascinated me, because we talk all the time about innovation—how to come up with ideas, how to test ideas, how to win support for our ideas—but we never really acknowledge that doing anything new, whether it’s a change, a transformation, or an innovation, requires that we step into the unknown.
I wanted to understand if there is any method to the madness. Are there tools? Are there techniques that innovators use to navigate the uncertainty? This book is about how we navigate planned or unplanned uncertainty.
We talk all the time about innovation—how to come up with ideas, how to test ideas, how to win support for our ideas—but we never really acknowledge that doing anything new, whether it’s a change, a transformation, or an innovation, requires that we step into the unknown.Nathan Furr
In the book, you introduce readers to the uncertainty manifesto. What is it and why is it so important?
Nathan Furr: One thing that was very clear to us as we interviewed the innovators, designers, and creators for this book is that they all had a specific view about uncertainty—a view that is reflected in other philosophies, such as stoicism. It was basically the idea that in a world of uncertainty, if you believe that everything is up to you and totally within your control, you are going to spend your whole life stressing out.
If instead you recognize that a lot in life is outside of our control, and if instead of focusing on external goals like “How do I make $10 million?” you focus on “How do I be the best me? What would be the best life for me?” and recognize that the outcome is somewhat out of your control, that will help you be a lot calmer under uncertainty.
I think the uncertainty manifesto is our little nudge to people to say: Hey, we’ve given you some practical, surface-level tools, but you can also go a little deeper. You can adopt a view of life that can help you be calmer and that is specifically about how most things in life are not totally within our control—so let it go. Instead, focus on how you can be the best version of yourself and make the greatest contribution to the world.
Susannah Harmon Furr: The uncertainty manifesto can be as simple as a statement like, “Uncertainty makes me uncomfortable, but I believe it is the only way to achieve any new transformation or joyful thing I want in my life.” Having something that you have thought through and that is simple to remember is really important, because in those moments when it feels like “Something is wrong with me” or “I have made a bad decision” or “This feels horrible, it must be wrong,” it helps to have that reframed view of uncertainty that says, “No, this is the portal—it’s supposed to feel like this at first before any great thing.”
Nathan Furr: My uncertainty manifesto is, “What is the earnest way of doing things?” Which means to focus on doing something well for the sake of doing it well and recognize that the rest isn’t up to me.
Susannah Harmon Furr: For me, I usually use the basic gist of our book, which is, “Uncertainty is the portal to possibility.” That’s my manifesto. That’s the umbrella idea that I always have baked in.
If instead of focusing on external goals like ‘How do I make $10 million?’ you focus on ‘How do I be the best me? What would be the best life for me?’ and recognize that the outcome is somewhat out of your control, that will help you be a lot calmer under uncertainty.Nathan Furr
How can individuals, teams, and organizations better navigate uncertainty?
Nathan Furr: Human beings are wired to be afraid of uncertainty. This is something that neuroscience studies show clearly. We have a natural orientation to try to eliminate all uncertainty, but what we don’t realize is that as we do that, we also eliminate possibility. To help individuals, teams, and organizations navigate uncertainty well, we organized more than 30 tools around this metaphor of the “first-aid cross for uncertainty.”
We arranged the tools in the book into four sections. Number one: reframing uncertainty from something frightening, a source of loss, to a potential source of gain. It’s about seeing the possibility. Number two: priming, which is this idea that we can prepare, so that when the uncertainty happens we are more resilient. Number three: doing. There are ways we can take action under uncertainty that lead to better outcomes, and there is a lot of research supporting this. Number four: sustaining, which means acknowledging our humanness and our emotions when there are setbacks or anxieties.
One of the things we encourage people to do when we talk about priming is to understand their strengths and weaknesses. One tool that I got from my mentor at Stanford, Dr. Tina Seelig, is this idea of knowing your risks, and that there are many kinds of risks. For most of us, we approach a risk and we think either “I’m not a risk taker” or “I am a risk taker,” when, really, there is financial risk, social risk, intellectual risk, and physical risk at an individual level.
That’s why it’s important to understand your risk orientation, have an open conversation about that, and keep that in mind when putting together teams or taking actions to ameliorate a weakness. The whole idea of the risk profile is knowing where you have a risk aversion—that’s an area where you want to both fortify and ask, “Is this holding us back?” Then ask, “Where do I have a risk affinity?” And play to your strengths.
Susannah Harmon Furr: In the book, we give the example of Martin van den Brink, the president and CTO [chief technology officer] of ASML. He creates a team of people who are different from him, who are going to push him, who are going to say, “You’re not right.” I think having a leader who is willing to be wrong and willing to have a team that is a little bit different is always going to be beneficial.
Running that risk-o-meter is so helpful. We’ve done a few workshops with companies where the employees rank themselves as individuals, and they also rank their company. It’s kind of hysterical, all the different ways they will rate their company, but it always gets the discussion going.
Nathan Furr: I love that you brought up Martin van den Brink, because he’s the CTO of ASML, which is one of the leading semiconductor lithography companies. That’s a great example of a huge uncertainty in a business environment: the invention of extreme ultraviolet lithography, this $5 billion, multiyear investment.
It was fascinating because he talked about himself as a leader, and he said, “Listen, I’m never right. My strength is that I’m sure I’m never right, but I’ll throw an opinion out there and invite others to disagree with me, and I’m not afraid to change my opinion.” I love that he does that as a leader. He puts together people who are complementary to him, who see the world differently, and he encourages them to challenge him and ask him questions.
I think there is this two-sided thing where, on the one hand, great leaders challenge their organizations. They see the opportunity that uncertainty creates to learn quickly, to do new things. But they also, on the other hand, support their people and pay attention to the anxiety that uncertainty creates. Great leaders create a rich soil to sustain their people.
What is your favorite uncertainty tool and why?
Susannah Harmon Furr: My favorite tool in the reframing section is the idea of playing an infinite game. So often we see life as a finite game, which means there are rules, and there are roles we have to play, and we need to win. James Carse, who wrote the book Finite and Infinite Games, gives us this wonderful idea that to be an infinite game player, instead of trying to be the best and win and beat everybody else in the competition, how do you keep the game in play? How do you play the game in a way that makes you feel joyful? Infinite gamers are people who play for the love of the game.
When we are failing at something, if we have this infinite-game lens, we can see failure as, “OK, this didn’t work, but what can I do to keep this going? If it’s something that has ended and I don’t have a choice to keep it going, how do I pivot? How do I start something else?” Keep that learning and that beautiful growth—there is always growth from any failure. That’s my favorite tool, probably.
Nathan Furr: There are so many tools in the book for helping you lower the heat of the uncertainty you feel. When we interviewed these innovators, they would say things like, “I eat uncertainty for breakfast” or “I love uncertainty.” And I was, like, “Oh, I’m not like that,” you know? But when you dug under the surface, you found that they did other things in their life to create certainty and stability so that they felt less anxiety. Paul Smith, a very colorful designer, for example, stays in the same room of the same hotel whenever he travels.
Instead of trying to be the best and win and beat everybody else in the competition, how do you keep the game in play? How do you play the game in a way that makes you feel joyful?Susannah Harmon Furr
What has surprised you the most while researching and writing this book?
Nathan Furr: One of the things that surprised me when doing this research is that I started out with the question, “How do we manage uncertainty?” But when I interviewed innovators, creators, designers, and scientists, they would say, “I love that topic. I love uncertainty—I don’t like the word manage.” That was really weird for me, and I resisted it until Susannah gave me an article about this gentleman Roberto Burle Marx, who was one of the great modernist architects.
He was from Brazil originally but went to Berlin for art school, and he had this epiphany moment when he went to the Berlin arboretum, where they were having an exhibit on Brazilian plants. He walked into the arboretum on a gray day and saw incredibly colorful Brazilian plants, tattoo flowers, and other rich flora in little concrete containers—they were bursting out of these containers. He said, “What if the question isn’t how we manage and control something but rather how we activate and unlock the potential that’s there?” That was a transformational moment for me. I said, “What if the question isn’t how we manage and control uncertainty but how we activate and unlock the potential that’s there?”
Susannah Harmon Furr: My biggest surprise and most heartwarming thing has been teaching workshops—specifically the first workshop we tested back when we had the first draft of our book, and we shared it with people from different industries all over the world who were LinkedIn community friends of Nathan’s. After the first session—which focused on the reframe tools—one of the participants, a few weeks later, said, “That changed my life. That was like a bolt, an injection, of so much joy.”
In a breakout room, the participant was able to have a conversation with other people and she decided to leave her job and take a new opportunity. She said she knew she wouldn’t have been able to otherwise, because there were already so many other COVID-19-related stressors for her at that moment in her life. She really unlocked her own potential. The most amazing transformation is when we unlock and activate ourselves.
Often, we worry too much about how we can be the best employee, or about thinking outward, but when we unlock our own capability with relation to uncertainty, then we are unstoppable. Workshops have proven that people need to talk about this with others. It’s something that we can use to help each other, whether it’s commiserating or pumping ourselves up. These tools can be a light switch moment, and I’m so grateful that it has been helpful for people.
Often, we worry too much about how we can be the best employee, or about thinking outward, but when we unlock our own capability with relation to uncertainty, then we are unstoppable.Susannah Harmon Furr
Can leaders build an uncertainty capability?
Nathan Furr: We all want possibility, transformation, change, and innovation, but the only way to get to that is through uncertainty. If we want those things, we need to get better at navigating uncertainty as individual leaders, as teams, and as organizations. Organizations need to ask themselves, “Do we have the ability to face uncertainty? What is our uncertainty ability?” I believe uncertainty ability is like a capability—it’s a muscle we can build in our organizations.
This is a capability that we can build. There are organizations out there, like LVMH [Moët Hennessy Louis Vuitton], which is a luxury-brand group, that hire for this. One of the CEOs we interviewed built up a group that tripled its revenue in a very crowded market, and he attributed the growth to the ability to navigate uncertainty. My main message to leaders out there is that we live in a world of increasing uncertainty, so we need to develop this uncertainty capability in ourselves and in our teams to prosper.
Jostein Solheim, former CEO of Ben & Jerry’s, explained this very well. He said, “There is ambiguity and paradox everywhere. For people who like the linear route forward, life is getting harder and harder in any field.” Our message is that there are tools we can use to develop our uncertainty capability, and that we should pay attention to it if we want to prosper in this era of change and dynamism.
We all want possibility, transformation, change, and innovation, but the only way to get to that is through uncertainty. If we want those things, we need to get better at navigating uncertainty as individual leaders, as teams, and as organizations.Nathan Furr
Susannah Harmon Furr: I would also add, again, a plug for managers and leaders to lean into the need for emotional hygiene. We talk about that in the sustain section of the book. Often, we read about how if CEOs are having a high level of fear and stress but are trying to hide or downplay that, the fear and stress are still felt in the organization—it actually trickles down. That anxiety level is totally normal; CEOs should feel it. While they do need to have a sense of control and show a face that says, “We know what to do,” having the ability to learn and embrace these tools personally will help them lead others through it.
I hope managers will use these applications through a human lens, not through the lens of “I’m the manager,” and then go back and think about how they could help their teams with it.
Are some cultures better suited to unlocking potential in uncertain times?
Nathan Furr: The research is very clear. There is research in the fields of ambiguity, tolerance, uncertainty avoidance, and resilience that says you can learn to handle uncertainty, but the gap we felt was, “How?” One of the things that speaks to the question of if certain cultures are better suited for uncertainty is a famous series of studies by a gentleman named Geert Hofstede, in which he measured global cultures in terms of five attributes.
One attribute was uncertainty avoidance. There are cultures where everybody has learned to tolerate uncertainty more than others, which means it’s not in our DNA, right? It’s something we learn. There is an index for how cultures rank for their ability to embrace uncertainty. Mexico has high-uncertainty-embracing cultures. They tend to be cultures where there was a lot of uncertainty already, so part of growing up was learning to realize that the world changes and things are uncertain, so how do you make sense of that?
When it comes to teaching younger people, we can draw a lot of lessons from cultures with wise sayings. We didn’t talk much about it in the book, but there is a whole movement around “enoughness.” There are some cultures that focus on what they already have, the idea being that they may already have enough. When you realize you probably have enough, you become much less anxious about uncertainty: you think, “I could try something new, I have enough,” rather than, “How do I get more?”
There are some cultures that focus on what they already have, the idea being that they may already have enough. When you realize you probably have enough, you become much less anxious about uncertainty: you think, ‘I could try something new, I have enough,’ rather than, ‘How do I get more?’Nathan Furr
You become more anxious about uncertainty if it’s about trying to win, calculating the risk, and really obsessing, whereas with enoughness, you can say, “I already have enough. If I try something new that works, great. If I try something new and it doesn’t work, I’ll be OK, too.”