Embracing uncertainty improves our lives, Heffernan says – from reducing fear of death to improving the way companies function.
If you’re hoping for a map-like vision of the future, this isn’t it. In Uncharted: How to Navigate the Future, accomplished author, professor, and former businesswoman Margaret Heffernan argues that uncertainty is a feature, not a bug, of human existence. But that’s no cause for despair.
Uncertainty Is Here to Stay
Heffernan begins the book by discussing society’s inability to cope with unpredictability. Predicting the future is impossible (and increasingly so, in an ever-more multifactorial, digital and globalized world), but that hasn’t kept humans from trying. Knowing what’s coming gives humans an evolutionary advantage and minimizes risk. The irresistible desire for knowledge makes us susceptible to false prophets who use predictions to shape the future according to their selfish ideas. It also leaves us vulnerable to false historical parallels and overconfidence in algorithms. Relying too much on technology undermines people’s ability to solve problems and invisibly influences their behavior.
People can improve their predictive abilities only to a point. Acting on predictions is also difficult and produces uneven results. Prediction is useful to provoke critical thought and broaden people’s imaginative horizons, not dull them. Heffernan wants readers to focus on embracing risk, doubt and unexpected opportunities.
The Journey Without Destination
Uncertainty need not result in passivity or apathy. As Heffernan says, ”Accepting that the future is unknowable is where actions begin.” Even small actions can have an outsize impact. Take the example of Rebecca Hosking, a photographer and documentary maker who wanted to reduce the negative effects of climate change. Making a film about it achieved little; convincing her local deli to give up plastic bags, on the other hand, sparked a movement that eventually led to reduced plastic bag usage in major metropolitan areas around the world. Persistent experimentation, not despair at failure, was the answer in her case.
You don’t need a blank slate to start making positive changes. Rather than scrapping existing governmental institutions and starting from scratch, for instance, Ireland introduced a form of deliberative democracy that fostered public discussion of pressing issues and helped voters overcome partisanship to reach decisions that worked for most.
Scenario planning can also help people cope with uncertainty and unpredictability. The army, for example, tests resources in various imagined situations, such as places where the army might need to take action. This approach challenges traditional planning methods that rely on assumptions. Such open-ended group exercises often take time and effort and can lead to conflict, but they are productive and worthwhile.
Heffernan also says that businesses, organizations, and their managers could learn from artists, many of whom thrive in fluid, ambiguous environments and no guaranteed outcome (or income, for that matter). Artists pay close attention to their surroundings, which makes them more open to sources of inspiration. Patience and freedom from rigid schedules enhance creativity and outcomes. Artists defy traditional ideas of aging as a form of decay, often producing their best work late in life. Heffernan acknowledges that these lessons are hard to apply in corporate environments, where the impulse to standardize and measure is pervasive. Still, giving workers downtime and independence is a good start.
Heffernan also believes in the power of the cathedral project, or ambitious undertakings that attempt to “bridge heaven and earth,” as it were. These large, open-ended, long-term, collaborative projects keep participants humble and motivated. Heffernan offers mapping the human genome, pandemic preparedness project CEPI, and nuclear research project CERN as examples. A similarly deep uniting vision – beyond bottom lines and anodyne purpose statements – can improve long-term corporate health.
Heffernan is a clever and engaging writer, so it’s no surprise that the book has received positive reviews. The anecdotes she uses are often memorable, insightful, and easy to understand. Many of her assertions are hard to disagree with. Still, she can be overly broad at times or, as one reviewer put it, ”messy.” She romanticizes the serendipitous lives of artists, for example, overlooking that many of the best ones have exacting disciplines and schedules, or that there are many more unsuccessful artists than successful ones, or that some of them report that inspiration derives not from careful observation of reality but rather from complete withdrawal from it. The broadness sometimes makes Heffernan’s points a bit disconnected from the average reader with pragmatic concerns. It’s hard to imagine what a cathedral project would look like for the average, humble company that lacks CERN’s or CEPI’s lofty mandates, though maybe that just underscores Heffernan’s point that more out-of-the-box thinking is needed.
She makes astute points about the drawbacks of technology, but at times her distaste for it feels knee-jerk. Heffernan spends a long time critiquing Silicon Valley’s obsession with optimizing human life. She singles out futurist Ray Kurzweil’s desire to store his brain in the cloud and thus live forever as selfish and rooted in a deep-seated fear of change. Heffernan has a point, but it’s likely that Kurzweil thinks of his own mission as a cathedral project of sorts. How can you tell a valid cathedral project from a vain one? Heffernan also could have strengthened her arguments by addressing how some companies have arguably managed to combine vision with metrics – Amazon is often touted, somewhat controversially, as an example of this perfect union – to yield outsize corporate performance.
Still, Heffernan is a refreshing and thought-provoking voice that livens up the staid advice common in management books. It should also offer solace for any reader who feels anxious about the unknowable future.