In praise of uncertainty

One of the most ancient of old saws holds that nothing is certain in life except death and taxes. That’s a pithy thought, but wrong.

It is certain it will get hot in Florida in August. The universe is certain to keep expanding and the New York Mets will certainly disappoint their fans. And there are likely many more examples.

But uncertainty has become a four-letter word in the business world and a convenient straw man for explaining away economic minutiae.

We see it all the time. Faced with lots of questions and no easy answers, market analysts and financial pundits love to fall back on the idea that “markets don’t like uncertainty” as a quick soundbite.

It’s not that uncertainty is so fundamentally disliked. It is unappreciated.

Uncertainty swirls around us like a breeze making a plastic shopping bag tango across a parking lot. And too many business owners – large and small — dance to that tune.

Uncertainty is something to be embraced, something to own. Technology has yet to provide us with a working crystal ball app, so we can’t know what is to come. Recognizing that uncertainty is a fact of business life is the first step in understanding how to succeed in an uncertain world.

Perhaps the best explanation requires a short lesson in theoretical physics.

According to German physicist Werner Heisenberg, the position and velocity of an object cannot be both measured exactly, at the same time. This Uncertainty Principle has been a foundation of quantum mechanics for nearly a century. But it is also something the business community should take a long, hard look at.

The idea essentially means there are trade-offs in our ability to make precise measurements. If that applies to the physical world at the most basic level, then it also applies to the business world. And since it is impossible to know the precise location and speed of an individual atomic particle, how can we reasonably expect to know anything with certainty?

But uncertainty does not mean chaos.  Uncertainty means business owners must accept the unknowable and prepare as best they can to meet whatever challenge presents itself. Rather than lament the inevitability of uncertainty, moving past the potential dark clouds to a flexible mindset that sees innovation as the key to success should be the focus of business owners and entrepreneurs.

Knowing that you can’t know everything forces business owners to focus on what is important, not what could be important. It means prioritizing and anticipating and most of all, being agile.

Uncertainty keeps us nimble and open to change and growth. Accepting that should be on every business owner’s map to success.

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