Decision Making Blog #4: Embrace uncertainty – it’s a badge of honour

Number 4 in our series of blogs on decision making by the Midlands Decision Support Network

Fraser Battye, the Strategy Unit

Imagine this: 

You are reading a big policy announcement, a business case for something strategically important, or maybe even a bid for significant levels of resourcing.  

The content, narrative and framing of it is pretty much what you’ve come to expect. So far, so humdrum.  

You finish the main body of the document, and are about to put it down, when the following catches your eye: 

“Annex A – Things we don’t know: significant uncertainties in this proposal 

It is good practice with all strategic decisions to describe inherent uncertainties. The process of producing this proposal has highlighted the following: 

    • Our plan depends upon a shift in the way that people access services. Again, we see enough evidence from similar schemes to give us the confidence to proceed. But the uncertainty remains; so ‘take up’ will be a leading indicator. If this remains below 30% after six months, we will wind this scheme down.  
    • We don’t know whether or not our proposals will achieve the desired outcomes. On balance, and following our review of the literature, we think there is enough evidence to proceed and that this approach will be effective. Yet there is enough uncertainty to make evaluation even more essential.  
    • Our plan also depends on staff adopting new technologies. While we have….” 

I say ‘imagine this’ because it isn’t usual practice. And when this type of material is produced, it is often as part of risk mitigation, when the basic setup is ‘problem-solution’ and serious admissions of uncertainty are rare.  

This is all utterly understandable. The processes we use incentivise crack-papering and the pretence of knowledge. People writing bids and business cases are incentivised to accentuate the positive and skate over the negative. More broadly, policy makers and politicians feel the need to present their proposals confidently in the face of scepticism and cynicism.  

Decision makers don’t gain plaudits by pointing out inherent – and sometimes irreducible – uncertainty.  

But is this right? Or is there another way of thinking about it? How can we get closer to a realistic acknowledgement of uncertainty in decision making? 

One way of approaching this would be to treat admissions of uncertainty as a badge of honour.  

Seeing it this way would mean recognising that any decision with a level of complexity and strategic importance contains uncertainty. Unavoidably so. In fact, the more significant the decision, the higher the uncertainty.  

It should then follow that more skilled decision makers only get involved in cases where uncertainty is a feature. The further implication of this would be that they would be wasting their time making decisions with low levels of uncertainty, since these should surely be delegated. So acknowledging uncertainty should be seen as a mark of skill.  

Embracing the uncertainty and still making the call. That’s a badge of honour worth wearing.