The last few months have been a mix of uncertainty while we all have been adapting to a new normal.
What this pandemic has made clear at least for me is the new unfamiliar territory of decisionmaking where even small decisions carry tremendous potential for uncertain outcomes.
Most of us are no fans of uncertainty, yet, this seems to be the new world that most of us are finding ourselves in.
Better understanding of our reactions to uncertainty and strategies to reduce it can help us in avoiding decision paralysis and commit to a decisionmaking practice.
People hate uncertainty for a reason
As Jonah Berger notes in The Catalyst:
“while uncertainty is great for status quo, or whatever people were doing before, it’s terrible for changing minds. Because rather than moving ahead and doing something new, uncertainty makes people wait and stick with whatever they have always been doing. At least until that uncertainty resolves. If it ever does” (p. 142).
We all crave certainty and want to feel like we have enough information to make sound decisions that result in good outcomes.
This is even harder when we try to lead others and assist others in making decisions as we don’t necessarily even understand the range of uncertainties they are considering.
People actually hate uncertainty so much that they’d rather take a negative outcome than an uncertain one:
“the more change involves uncertainty, the less interested people are in changing. The more ambiguity there is around a product, service, or idea, the less valuable that thing becomes” (p. 140).
But rather than ending up in a decision paralysis where we can’t decide at all, a range of strategies can reduce uncertainty and make decisionmaking more effective.
Strategies that reduce uncertainty
Most of the strategies to reduce uncertainty are based on the principles of trialability, reversibility, reducing up-front costs and enabling discovery.
The aim is to first make small decisions that enable you to make the first decision but in a way that doesn’t necessarily lock you into a major decision straight away.
This is because many major decisions have very high uncertainties until we actually know and have access to better information.
Trialability and Reversibility
Triability reduces uncertainty because it gives us more information and increases certainty if we can experience something without having to lock it in.
For example, by giving customers a chance to order a product home and then return it for free in 30 days if they are unhappy with it enables triability.
It is the principle of having the chance to experience before making a final decision because the reduction in uncertainty can enable action:
“The easier it is to try something, the more people will use it, and the faster it catches on” (p. 145).
The app world certainly understands this: you can trial many apps for 7 days just to see if you like it and then later on make a decision if you want to continue (although many apps then start charging you if you forget to cancel).
For example, professional development platforms like Coursera let you trial a course for free for 7 days to see whether the content fits what you are looking for and only then locks you for a monthly fee if you decide to proceed with the course.
The element of reversibility is also important: if you know you can try something and then return it, it is much easier to make a decision in the first place to order something or sign up to a service.
Freemium and Reducing Up-front costs
Another strategy that many companies also use is “freemium”, which comes from the combination of words “free” and “premium”.
In this strategy, people can use the service for free: for example, many cloud based services such as Dropbox are free to use for all customers.
This means more people use the service and some of them are likely to upgrade to more storage at some point that then requires signing on to a premium service that costs money.
But this is about trying out a service and seeing whether it is useful and whether it is the right fit for you.
This in turn reduces uncertainty because you then have first-hand knowledge of how a service or product works and are in a better position to make a decision later on whether you do want to sign up for the more costly option.
Similarly, by making the first decision easy to implement (e.g. order something with free shipping and with free return if you don’t like it), we reduce again uncertainty.
This means we have a chance to experience something before we lock the final decision.
Yet, while much of this has to do with online products, there are times where you actually need to get bums on seats (actual experiences) to reduce uncertainty in making a decision.
And sometimes your customer base or audience does not even know that you exist.
Jonah gives the brilliant example of car maker Acura that was not getting traction like other brands such as Buick and Lexus.
Part of this problem was that people didn’t really know about the brand and there was a massive threshold (uncertainty) in buying a new less known car brand.
Acura decided to drive discovery, not by massive ad campaigns or aggressive advertising in trying to get the word out there.
Instead, they partnered with W hotel chain: hotel customers could order free transport during their stay at the hotel in an Acura.
Many customers took up the offer, had the new experience of both the brand and the car, and sales began to go up as customers discovered a new brand and had a direct positive experience of it immediately.
Weathering uncertainty through daily practice
Many of the goals in our careers and lives are uncertain: if we get a promotion finally, if we manage to publish a paper in an excellent scientific journal, if we are going to gain a large number of followers online.
What these strategies around uncertainty have pinpointed to me is that each decision we make has both the short- and long-term dimension, and if we commit to a practice and take those small initial steps, we reduce the uncertainty of whether we reach our goals.
Same applies to issues such as adaptation to climate change: if we don’t do anything, put no strategies in place because there is “just too much uncertainty”, we get nowhere, and can in fact be more vulnerable to impacts of climate change further down the line.
Daily small decisions reduce our uncertainty of whether we reach a goal.
The ideas of reversibility, flexibility, and reducing up-front costs are also valuable when leading teams and can fuel innovation as people become more ready to try new and different things and approaches without having to lock in a major decision straight away.
Uncertainty will never be reduced to zero but by combining both short- and long-term goals and actions, we are able to weather uncertainty and have more control as we progress on the path that is leading towards our ultimate goals.