How to tackle uncertainty.
Life is filled with decisions that we need to make. Some of them are simple and easy, but many are complex, with an array of variables to consider and a lot of uncertainty.
Making a decision that involves your career, for example, is typically fraught with complexity and unknowns. Will this career change help me now, but hinder later? Will I enjoy that new field, or will I regret it once I’m doing it? If I invest time into learning that new skill, will it really help me or will it be a waste of time?
As you’re facing these decisions, you need information. Answers to the questions that those variables represent. This lack of information creates uncertainty and discomfort, which can be paralysing. Too many variables without a known answer, and too many unknowns adds up to too many possible outcomes, making it difficult to know if you’re doing the right thing. It’s risky.
So when we’re standing in front of a decision, paralysed by the unknowns, what can we do?
We can use prototyping to get started, and begin answering those questions.
Prototyping, in the essence of the term, is about creating a first version of something from which other versions are based.
Prototyping, when used in our lives, is about creating a miniature version of a real decision, to live through it, and to collect evidence that helps inform the ultimate decision that you’ll make. Creating a first version of the situation for yourself.
Prototyping enables us to get started without knowing all the answers yet, allowing us to overcome that feeling of being paralysed by the ambiguity and unknowns.
For example, do you dream about changing careers and becoming a writer, but you’re not sure if you’ll like it? What if you were able to take 2-4 weeks off work to work on a short book that you’ve had in mind, and see if it really clicks?
Do you want to start cycling to work, but the investment into a road bike is pretty high, and you’re not sure if you’ll stick with it? See if you can borrow a bike from a friend for a week or two, start doing it, and then make your decision after.
Of course it’s not completely representative of being a full-time writer or a regular cyclist, but it can fill in enough blanks for you to make a more educated decision, and lower any perceived risk.
Prototyping is a really great way to help you through large decisions, but works equally well for small decisions that may not have as many unknowns, but still have a perceived risk.
For example, are you thinking about changing the format of your weekly team meetings, but you’re a bit unsure if the new format will work, or the team will like it? Announce to the team that you want to trial the new format for a couple of weeks as a test. If it doesn’t work, you’ll go back or try something else. If it works, then mission successful! Subtly solicit feedback from your team by asking them to help judge if it was successful or not.
Prototyping allows you to get started now, rather than wasting time trying to avoid making mistakes. Getting started allows us to begin gathering data about what works and what doesn’t work, and then we can use that data to course correct, pivot, retry, or simply go back.
Use prototyping whenever there’s a decision to make that affords you the ability to go back if things don’t work out. You’ll find that, very often, it’s simply a better approach than trying to have all the answers up front.
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