Uncertainty Grammar

leadership

Uncertainty Grammar

May 17, 2022
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In Turkish there is a suffix (mis) that turns  a statement uncertain. It’s used to create the “inferential” mood. We don’t have anything like it in English or other Latinate languages, although it does exist in many Baltic languages.  In Estonian it is called the oblique mood. When people use this tense they are essentially confessing up front that they did not observe what they are reporting –or that it may be imaginary, hypothetical or false. It’s something like adding “it seems”, or “apparently”. In other words, it acknowledges the very real subjectivity of the statement. And it isn’t a rare usage, when you talk to a child you might use it to say, “The stuffed toy is sleepy”, or when telling a joke, reporting gossip, or repeating a story.

It casts doubt.

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Certainty Blindness

I was talking to a client about a forthcoming “strategy” workshop he was planning with his team. He led a large, multifunctional team and had been charged with solving a problem.

As he explained what he wanted to accomplish it was clear that he had already decided the strategy. He wanted to come up with a technical solution to solve the problem –and he had in mind what it should accomplish. Having already decided that all he was really asking his team to do was to come up with ideas about how to do that.

The interesting part was that he really thought he had an open mind and that they could approach it any way they wanted. But that plainly wasn’t true. They couldn’t do a root cause analysis and find a different source of the problem. They couldn’t approach the solution from the standpoint of something other than the technical solution he was proposing.

In fact, while he believed he was asking for strategic thinking, all he was asking for was some technical brainstorming and sprint planning.

Language and Thinking

Now, imagine if he were having the same conversation in Turkish. He would have to make a conscious decision about whether to state the issue declaratively or to use the inferential mood. He might have recognized that he had already made up his mind and was certain of it; or he might have revised his plan. In fact, the very grammar of the conversation would demand making that distinction.

The bias toward certainty is ubiquitous in business. There is so little distinction between certainty and gradations of uncertainty that we confuse ourselves. In developing strategy, uncertainty is integral. Yet, even the smartest, most numerate founders fail to distinguish uncertainty at all, no less define their precise level of confidence in whatever they are planning.

Rain or Not Rain

In our civilian lives we are equally sloppy. When the evening news meteorologist predicts an 80% chance of rain, we hear a certain prediction: “It will rain tomorrow!”. From that perspective, when the day stays dry we are sure the weatherman was wrong. (He wasn’t).

We speak and listen through a presumption of certainty.

Suspicion as Certainty

I am no less guilty of this than anyone else. That’s what made this linguistic discovery so beguiling to me. I tried to imagine the mental calculus I would do if with every utterance I had to submit it to my own certainty assessment. How often would I opt for the declarative mood despite being unsure of my conclusion. I was thinking about this when I browsed Next Door, the hyper-local neighborhood app this morning. If you’ve been to your own version of it you have seen the certainty with which people declare pedestrian loiterers to be would-be thieves, car-jackers or rapists. I read with horror. But then, it’s hard not to wonder if I am equally as strident when I report what I saw (or think I saw).

If our grammar demanded I do a preliminary certainty test, would it temper my sureness? I wonder whether I would use the inferential mood when sharing about my newspaper delivery person who only delivers my paper 40% of the time? Maybe not.

But even without a grammatical imperative, we would all do well to adopt the cognitive structure that Turks have built-in to their language.

The Tentativeness of Vision

When you ask a new university Freshman what they plan to do professionally, they often answer tentatively. They aren’t declaring a certainty but entertaining a possibility. They’ll continue to assess for 4 years and reach a conclusion by graduation –and even then, it will not be a done deal. Does that consideration of their future profession differ in any substantive way from the vision that an organization crafts for its future state?  Does it differ from the plan the organization has to accomplish that goal? Probably not. They are all statements of uncertain futures.

Our resistance to embracing or even acknowledging uncertainty impacts our planning, our thinking, and the culture of our workplaces. When we start from the premise that whatever we say or hear is meant as a sure thing, we lose the ability to embrace risk, forgive errors or plan for upsets. That plays out differently depending on where we look.

In strategy, it’s critical to stay aware of the distinction between certain and uncertain. Strategy itself is a hypothetical proposition. Once a visionary goal exists, the way to accomplish it is a matter of pure speculation. That’s strategy –a speculative plan.

Along the way we try to reduce uncertainty through information about the market, supply chain, competitors, workforce, economy –and the way we expect the world itself to change.

But reducing uncertainty doesn’t provide certainty. Every strategy is uncertain until it’s fulfilled or not. [Click to tweet this thought]

Yet, almost every company leader I’ve ever worked with –especially in the high-growth start-up space—talks about their planning and strategy as though it were a sure thing –and the ONLY way to get where they want to go. Alternatively, they assume everything is equally uncertain and make no strategic choices –saying yes to anything and no to nothing.

Both approaches fail, albeit differently.

Testing Strategy

Even the scorecards and KPIs we develop tend to measure the execution of the strategy –not its validity. When the various teams fail to produce the prescribed metrics, we blame the team, not the plan. Sometimes though, the plan is the problem, not the performance. When you believe your strategy is the truth rather than one of many possible plans, how can you ever discover a flawed strategy?

The key to all of this can’t be that we conduct business in Turkish or Estonian. But we do need to address the issue through language. It starts with doing a genuine audit of our own thinking and speaking. Whether our assessments of our friends, our political views, or our approach to growing our organization –we trade in pronouncements. But most of those pronouncements are subjective and uncertain. We present them as sure things –and we may even believe that they are. The solution is simply to acknowledge and describe them as uncertain. Creating a culture that allows, embraces, and honors uncertainty is a superpower; but it’s a superpower you can acquire.

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