Human discomfort with uncertainty, together with a craving for reassurance, has fuelled an industry that enriches itself by terrorising us with uncertainty and taunting us with certainty.

Margaret Heffernan, Uncharted

Due to the advent of globalisation and new technology, our lives have become increasingly complex and dependent on a wide range of different factors that are mostly beyond our direct control. Even what we wear and what we eat is very often the result of an incredibly long supply chain that spreads across the globe before reaching us. Although we were, at least to a certain extent, already aware of this, it is only during the recent global pandemic, that it became acutely clear that, going forward, we will need to learn how to deal with high levels of uncertainty and unpredictability on a more regular basis, if we want to face any future challenges successfully.

Those familiar with strategic leadership concepts would say that we are living in a VUCA scenario (according to some experts, it could be argued that we may already be moving into an even more complex post-VUCA world), characterised by high volatility, uncertainty, complexity and ambiguity. This acronym that was forged in the late 80s was initially used in the army and, more recently, has been adopted to indicate unpredictable change in specific business environments. It is safe to say that this concept can also be appropriately used to describe our modern world in which a very small event may have unforeseen and disproportionate consequences. In response to this type of increased uncertainty, both individuals and organisations tend to enter in a vicious circle that starts with a strong need for certainty that then leads to relying more and more on prediction models and, when our expectations and assumptions are disappointed, can turn into frustration and create an even higher dependence on technology to find the answers we want.

This addition to prediction and the obsessive – yet almost always fruitless – search for certainty is the starting point of Margaret Heffernan’s latest book: Uncharted: How to Map the Future Together, where the author explores our relationship with the future and our tendency to over-rely on predictions and technology to forecast what, in reality, cannot be predicted. The first part of the book explores the history-based methods that we use, both at an individual and organisational level, to navigate the future and show the reader how they have often proved inadequate. Even though we have powerful tools and various models and datasets at our disposal, it is practically impossible to make accurate predictions, especially in VUCA scenarios like the one we are living in. For this reason, as Heffernan explains in the remaining two parts of the book, we should focus more on the present and on the alternative approaches that we could adopt to respond to our ever-changing environment better.

When dealing with increasing levels of change, we need to think critically and find innovative solutions, without being over reliant on technology. According to Heffernan, if we fail to do so, we run the risk of falling into the trap of what she calls the ‘automation paradox’ which says that the skills you automate, you lose. In other words, higher levels of dependency on machines that think for us, result in a significant decrease in our ability to think for ourselves and make appropriate decisions. As a consequence, we have an even bigger need for technology.

Heffernan explores this topic from multiple points of view and provides many examples drawn from her extensive experience as an entrepreneur and a writer to illustrate the importance of shifting our focus from predictions to approaches such as scenario planning, creativity and experimentation as a way to develop a new mindset and the adaptability necessary to prepare for the future. Exciting is the chapter dedicated to building cathedrals, projects whose design and construction were carried out over decades or even centuries, like in the case of the Sagrada Familia in Barcelona. In Heffernan’s opinion, these projects show how individuals and organisations overcame unpredictable challenges and defied time, fear and uncertainty to achieve something that was initially considered unfeasible. Heffernan also dedicates a chapter of the book to artists and their approach to life and creation. Their work is rooted in a constant process of exploration off the beaten track and in an intentional search for change; only by accepting ambiguity and exploring its richness and nuances artists can create something new that can stand the test of time. The book suggests a lot we could – and should – learn from the artists’ way to see life and uncertainty.  

Published in February 2020, Uncharted was nominated for the FT/McKinsey Best Business Book Award 2020, but it is actually more than a business book; it is a book about life. Heffernan encourages us to question the status quo and break free from our dependence on datasets and models to achieve certainty. We should instead embrace the idea that multiple futures may exist. Even if we might not predict them, we can prepare for what may come by having the courage to thrive in ambiguity and complexity. According to this thought-provoking and inspirational book, this is only possible if we develop critical thinking, fervent curiosity, and innovative creativity to foster a truly diverse and collaborative mindset.

Valentina Lorenzon