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What to do when you don't know what to do

Updated: Jul 16, 2020

We want to shift attitudes to climate change, or clear the political roadblocks to renewables, or develop pasture systems that can handle more variable rainfall. Or grow local food networks, develop low carbon transport systems, translate the idea of a circular economy into new relationships between businesses in regional economies.

Welcome to the world of volatility, uncertainty, complexity and ambiguity (VUCA). Dave Snowden points out the difference between complicated and complex situations. In a complicated situation, it's possible to know the variables and work out what to do. If you don't know what to do, you hire an expert.

In a complex situation, all the variables aren't known, and the relationship between the variables you do know is shifting. In this situation, you can't know what to do. Experts can be dangerous - see Laurie Anderson's Only an expert.

So, what do you do when you don't know what to do? Snowden's advice is to probe-sense-act. Probe the situation with action, sense what happens, then act. And repeat. Treat each action as a further probe.

The 13th century Sufi poet Rumi has different suggestion - find good companions:

With company you quicken your ascent.
You may be happy enough going along, but with others you’ll get farther and faster.
Someone who goes cheerfully by himself to the customs house to pay his traveler’s tax will go even more lightheartedly when friends are with him.

Creating the new depends partly on our individual resolve, but also on having generous people around us. The give-and-take in networks buffers volatility, uncertainty, complexity, and ambiguity.

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