Get comfortable with uncertainty

Uncertainty isn't pleasant. But, our best breakthroughs come to us not when we're reaching for answers but when admit that there's a lot that we don't know. Varol says that we focus too much on information that's readily available to us, but don't spend enough time thinking about the gaps in our knowledge. We skim past areas of ambiguity, and ignore nuance in favour of more accessible answers. Then, those easy answers hold us back like anchors. We stop seeing alternatives. Our confirmation bias kicks in. We dismiss information that contradicts idea and over-value whatever validates our position.

Instead of jumping into problem-solving mode, spend more time framing the problem. Cast a wide net for information. Make a point of seeking out data that undermines your assumptions.

Don't sweat the process

Organizations value well-defined processes because they seem to bring order to uncertainty. But processes are always based on the past, not the present or the future. Sticking to a rigid process, cuts us off from viable opportunities that may not align with supposed best practices. This is even more likely to occur in volatile or complex situations. In these settings, we cling to what's familiar. But, familiar approaches that might have made sense at one point may not apply to novel situations.

Be wary of getting caught up in old patterns of thought. Mental models and frameworks can be useful, but they need to be flexible. We should challenge our assumptions and drill down to first principles. Organizations should stop rewarding people for staying inside the box and punishing those who think outside it. Instead, they should encourage people to engage in thought experiments and to be open to new possibilities and ways of working.

Embrace diversity

Diversity supports innovative thinking and creativity. This means bringing together people of different backgrounds and experiences, as well as different thinking styles. A healthy tension between perspectives is valuable. The most innovative teams are able to step outside of their comfort zone and engage with and adapt to contradictory ideas.

This extends to the inputs you bring in to your thinking process as well. Combining and recombining ideas from a variety of sources is one of the best tools we have for arriving at novel insights. Engage in divergent thinking. Look past the usual suspects and competitors when approaching a new problem. Examine how people outside your usual competitive set have tackled similar challenges. Think more about adjacent spaces and possibilities.

Develop hypotheses, not answers

When we think we've arrived at an answer, we start to identify with our solution. When others question that answer or push back, we take it personally. We dig in our heels and refuse to acknowledge other possibilities.

We need to be less precious about our ideas. Most of them will be bad. That's not because we're poor thinkers. It's just reality. So, we should operate under the assumption that most of our ideas will fail. Instead, treat solutions like working, falsifiable hypotheses. Then, try to disprove them as quickly as possible.

Test ideas, under conditions as close to reality as is reasonable. Diversify the test methods to ensure that we haven't created any blind spots. Seek out people who will disagree with you and give them the opportunity. If you can't find anyone, play your adversary's part and respectfully articulate their argument as strongly as you can.

Don't punish failure, or valourize it. Employers should support well-intentioned risk-taking, leading by example by admitting their own errors. They should protect employees from well-intentioned failure, as long as they learned from their experiment. Instead, treat it like an investment in learning. It's not fail fast; it's learn fast.

Live in the future

Many organization start with what they have and project forward. Their horizons are short-term. They have trouble looking past the next quarter or maybe the next year. But there are benefits to thinking in the future.

Forecasting—asking how to move forward with what we have today—puts immediate constraints on our problem solving abilities. In contrast, backcasting—working backwards from an imagined future—helps us break down a desirable future state into manageable increments. There are many ways to do this. Amazon uses prospective news releases, replete with hypothetical FAQs. The press release format forces their teams to think about what their customers value.

Another powerful technique is the pre-mortem. Many companies conduct post-mortems after something has gone wrong. At that point, it's too late to do anything about it. But a frank pre-mortem helps anticipate factors that could negatively impact the success of a project. Gather your team together and assume that your project has failed. What went wrong?


You don't need to be a rocket scientist to think like one. Most important though, is that we make time to think. Too often, we jump to answers and conclusions. Instead, pause. Take time to sit in uncertainty. Try to come up with many possible answers, and take the time to test them. And always keep an open mind.