We Make the Future by Feeling Our Way
How Do We Move Forward When We Can’t Eliminate Uncertainty? Reviewing Margaret Heffernan’s ‘Uncharted.’
A scientist at 3M was researching sticky stuff. “We wanted to develop bigger, stronger, tougher adhesives,” Spencer Silver said later of his work. Instead, he accidentally produced a substance that only lightly adhered to surfaces.
Silver reported his discovery, but the organization saw no use for it—until, that is, another colleague, Art Fry, got sick of bookmarks falling out of his hymnal each week between Wednesday choir practice and Sunday church service.
Fry needed something sticky to hold his bookmarks in place but not so sticky it tore the pages when he pulled them out. That’s when Fry remembered hearing about Silver’s barely-sticky adhesive a few years before. The two experimented until they landed on something.
An accident became an answer to prayer—and a whole new line of products for 3M. They were totally unplanned, but today you can’t avoid Post-It Notes even if you try.
Planning for Creativity
When Silver first created his weak adhesive, he couldn’t have imagined its later application. Lucky for 3M, they had a culture of filing away curious-but-unusable ideas for later application, a practice that has contributed to the company’s success more than once.
Unfortunately, in 2000, as Margaret Heffernan recounts in her book, Uncharted: How to Navigate the Future, a new CEO entered the picture and instituted Six Sigma, a quality control process designed to eliminate mistakes—in other words, the curious and unusable.
The new CEO got what he wanted: fewer surprises. But there was a tradeoff. 3M became less innovative. Inefficiencies and accidents were part of the company’s creative magic. Once those were engineered out of the process, says Heffernan, a three-time CEO herself, “The company quickly began to lose its innovative edge.”
Thankfully, the next CEO knew better. “Innovation,” Heffernan quotes him as saying, “is by its very nature a disorderly process. You can’t put a Six Sigma process into that area and say, ‘Well, I’m getting behind on invention, so I’m going to schedule myself are three good ideas on Wednesday and two on Friday.’ That’s not how creativity works.”
But, oh, how we wish it did.
The Challenge of Uncertainty
The internal tension at 3M is something we all experience. We’re looking to reduce variability and randomness to make our circumstances more predictable. But life is less predictable than we assume, and we miss out when trying to force it into predetermined paths.
We crave certainty about the future. It’s an unavoidable aspect our biology, psychology, and neurology. And it’s mostly helpful. Beyond day-to-day survival, Heffernan concedes our species has benefited immeasurably from our efforts at increasing predictability:
Longing to reduce uncertainty and doubt has driven much of our progress. The more we noticed, remembered, wrote down, and shared, the more knowledgeable we became and the better able we were to pass our learning on for future generations to increase. This made us better and better estimators, able to plan.
But there’s an irony here. Reducing uncertainty has driven progress, yes. But progress has driven complexity, which makes the world less predictable. While uncertainty ebbs in one area, it flows in another. This renders prognostication impossible despite our most valiant efforts.
Why Predictions Fail
Forecasts are fraught for several reasons, according to Heffernan. I’ll cover three here.
The first is the limits of our models. As we saw in Michael Blastland’s The Hidden Half, no one can frame the world in one go. So we break it down and simplify, trying to build models that enable us to think through what-ifs and contingencies. Some models are better than others, but no model is perfect. “They will always be subjective and incomplete representations of complex reality,” says Heffernan.
The first problem is compounded by the second, which relates back to Heffernan’s term subjective. Everyone has assumptions about the way the world works. Since we’re never even aware of all our assumptions, let alone how to compensate for their biases, we build imperfect models and end up using them to confirm our assumptions. “Forecasts always contain an agenda,” she says.
Third, we build our models on a reasonable but faulty assumption. Our brains use prior experience to forecast future events. We know what to do today because it worked yesterday. We believe something will happen in the future because something like it happened in the past. But history doesn’t repeat.
It often rhymes, as the old joke goes. However, in a complex system just one variable can radically redirect the flow of events—and our models can’t factor everything. Unaccountable flukes and variation confound even our best guesswork. For confirmation, consult the usual weather, election, or stock forecasts. Even people that get it right can’t do so continually; the world changes more than our models can manage.
So, if you can’t plan all the uncertainty out of the system, how can we successfully navigate the future?
What to Do in Lieu of Prediction
Heffernan offers several strategies. I’ll distill her thoughts down to two.
First, envision. We start by imagining a future we want, some sort of desirable future state we wish to attain. The more grand and inspiring that future, the less likely the path to get there will be foreseeable or obvious—especially if it’s what Heffernan calls a cathedral project, something truly massive in scope.
Of course, your envisioned future doesn’t have to be grand or massive, just something not yet here that you can start to work toward. “The best way to navigate uncharted territory is to have an energetic, future-facing and long-term ambition in mind,” she says. “You can’t build a better future until you imagine it.”
Second, experiment. Since the path forward is unclear the best method is experimentation. Experimentation allows us to work when, as Heffernan says, we’re “without datasets.” How? Because experimentation delivers data. It’s a discovery process that illuminates the path and sometimes points to different and better directions.
Experimentation might take several avenues. Think of pilot programs, A/B testing, or launching a minimal viable product. Scenario planning is another—helpful not because it produces real predictions, but because it enables us to challenge assumptions and prepare more robust responses for moments they’re needed.
Another avenue is artistry. Heffernan says we don’t have to be artists to approach our lives and work like one. It’s in the careful practices of attention, noticing, trying, probing, and playing that artists arrive at revelation.
We think we know what we’re looking for in advance but only discover it along the way. Instead of walking into a future predestined by our models, we feel it out and shape it as we go. That’s why tinkering has always been at the heart of innovation. That’s what connects one year’s supposedly failed discovery to another year’s market-redefining product.
One Danger in the Meantime
Heffernan warns us about one major risk in the meantime, something called the automation paradox. The idea is simple enough. To render life more predictable we surrender control of the variables to systems and technologies that promise more reliable outcomes.
“We’re so dazzled by such systems,” says Heffernan, “we forget, or prefer to deny, that contingencies have multiplied, fragility has proliferated, and accurate prediction has become harder.”
The trouble is this: if we surrender our responsibility to notice, experiment, and imagine to bureaucracies and machines—however smart they might seem—we will lose our capacities to notice, experiment, and imagine. Thanks to mounting complexity, the future will be every bit as unpredictable as before, but we will then be unprepared to deal with it when our systems inevitably fail us.
“The less we engage with the here and now,” she says, “the more impoverished our scenarios of the future become.” Instead, says Heffernan, we must stay engaged and cultivate our natural human capacities for imagination and exploration. That is how we both discover and create the future—especially in our complex present.
5 Quotes from Uncharted
“Anyone who tries to tell us they know the future is simply trying to own it. . . .”
“Our capacity to generate a vast range of scenarios is what gives us the capacity for change. . . . [W]e can navigate thousands of possibilities with a lively, free combination of routine and creativity, knowledge and improvisation.”
“Experiments are how we learn everything. . . . That life, work, love, politics are complex makes experiments more valuable, not less. They allow us to see the systems we inhabit. Since we can’t see the whole of a complex system at once, trial and error is how we probe them to find out what works.”
“However much we might adore the legends of heroic soloists overcoming daunting odds, the risk is that trying to do everything yourself limits what can be achieved.”
“Nothing is inevitable, unless or until we surrender the right to use the freedom we have.”
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