Risk and uncertainty

Avoiding black and white isn’t black and white

Photo by Liz WestPreviously I’ve said that it’s unhelpful to view risk or uncertainty as black and white events that either happen or don’t happen. And I’ve also pointed out that it’s unhelpful generally to think about things in a binary manner.

Happily, that’s a rule that can be applied to itself. In other words, this isn’t really a black and white matter.

The problem with viewing things in a black and white manner is that it prevents us seeing the inevitable variability (and variables) of a situation. By seeing more complexity we get a better understanding of a situation, and by drawing out more variables we have more levers by which to control, manage or influence it. By contrast, if we see things as either simply one thing or another we flip from happiness to crisis, or from good to bad, instantly, and there’s no time or opportunity to respond intelligently.

And this is not limited to two-state scenarios (e.g. black and white, yes and no, etc). It’s possible to have three-state scenarios (such as a RAG status), four-state scenarios, and so on ad infinitum. This what I mean by black and white not being a black and white matter: the scale from a binary world view to a highly nuanced world view has a vast number of stops in between. The fewer the number of states, the more troublesome our situation.

For example, suppose a manager has a goal of hiring four people into her team by the end of the year. If she slips by one hire then she’s missed her target by 25% instantly. If a sales team say they’re going to win five clients this year and only win four then they’ve fallen short by a full 20%. A small slip can trigger a big response.

The preferred alternative is not, of course, to try to hire 100 people or win 200 clients. It’s to find something that’s more variable, such as some measure of team effectiveness, or the total value of the clients. Looking for an underlying goal that has more variability is more likely to lead us to something that more achieveable.

Photo by Liz West

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