More often I’m hearing people talk about how we all should “embrace” change and uncertainty. Especially in the field of foresight, trends and innovation. I often get a bit irritated as it is often said by privileged folks who have steady, high paying jobs, live in democratic nations, and are healthy and mentally stable.
This blog dives into the psychological aspects that occur when humans encounter change and the uncertainty it brings along. We also take a look at how working with trends can help you to navigate uncertainty.
HOW ARE OUR BRAINS HANDLING UNCERTAINTY?
To me it seems easier to embrace change coming from a place where all your primary needs are met. When you don’t need to stress about having food on the table or a roof over your head. I’m wondering: is this just a feeling of mine on the topic of uncertainty or this this backed in any way with research?
Let’s see what neuroscience has to say about being in a state of uncertainty:
“Uncertainty means ambiguity, which means that we have to expend effort in trying to predict what will happen in addition to preparing to deal with all of the different outcomes.”
Shares Aoife O’Donovan, an associate professor of psychiatry at the UCSF Weill Institute for Neurosciences.
“The stress of uncertainty, especially when prolonged, is among the most insidious stressors we experience as human beings”, says O’Donovan. According to her studies uncertainty emerges when we are not clear about the way forward, and anxiety emerges when the perceived way forward may contain a threat.
Luckily, in most cases the human brain is quite good at managing anxiety.
“We can think in the abstract about multiple scenarios and outcomes and prepare ourselves for them before they even happen.”
On the other hand, change and the uncertainty it brings can make us anxious and fearful. It can cause us to defend the seemingly certain and familiar to gain back a sense of control.
When your everyday life is filled with upheaval and uncertainty because of war, illness, financial difficulties or troubled relationships, you are quickly pushed into “survival mode”. In these situations your brain struggles to think about the future, even just a day ahead, because it is in crisis. This creates a feeling of ongoing disorientation.
“The problem is that imagining and predicting and preparing for bad outcomes can take a toll on us psychologically and biologically.”
Studies show that in the long-term, prolonged activation of this type of biological stress response can have toxic effects on the brain and the rest of the body, even increasing risk for both psychiatric disorders and chronic physical diseases.
Mmmm…so uncertainty is not really a state of mind you would want to place yourself in for too long….
EMBRACING UNCERTAINTY: A PRIVILEGE?
👉 Looking at changing circumstances from a psychological angle, these situations present us with constraints and opportunities; change always involves gains and losses. That’s why uncertain futures may feel threatening to us personally.
👉 Having your primary needs met, such as a roof over your head and enough to eat, makes it easier to navigate ongoing change. A stable life situation allows us to see opportunities and possibilities on the horizon. It helps us to be more open to alternative futures and feel more positive excitement and engagement with these.
👉 This also means that some people have much greater power to influence the future than others, depending on their personal life circumstances.
Let’s remain aware of everyone’s different positions in life and the privileges this brings. As this influences our capacity to cope with change and uncertainty.
UNCERTAINTY WHEN WORKING WITH TRENDS
Working with trends means dealing with a lot of uncertainty and ambiguity. You may detect early signs of change, but still won’t know if they will spread, or at what pace and in what manner.
➡️ The farther into the future you explore, the more uncertainty comes into play. Predictive analytics focused on guessing what you will buy next online are a totally different ball game compared to exploring what the world might be like twenty years from now.
➡️ When you work with trend you train yourself to become at least bit more comfortable with not knowing everything.
And this is key for innovation.
➡️ To be able to transform and innovate requires an open mindset during the process of innovation. Recognising the potential of a changing environment, reflecting upon it and dealing with uncertainty are key factors during any innovation process. As Eva Burm, Port of the Future Advisor at Port of Antwerp-Bruges articulates:
“We define innovation as something that’s new and creates value. Applying trends is quite challenging because it brings a lot of uncertainty. You focus on a trend which shows a possible future, but this future is not guaranteed and you still have to become very concrete.”
TIPS to train your trend navigation muscles
🌟 Going through the trend process yourself at least once will help you to navigate uncertainty, ambiguity and not knowing. It stimulates taking the long view and activates your future consciousness. While outsourcing your work by buying a trend report or relying solely on AI tools may provide faster results. It won’t allow you to fully experience and learn from the process.
🌟 In order to navigate change and uncertainty, company cultures should become more open, curious and explorative. Employees should be more skilled in using elements of trend research and futures thinking in their daily job routine. To build a practice, you should make trend research an ongoing process instead of an ad hoc project or a yearly add-on.
TIPS to cope with uncertainty in your personal life
🌟 And how can we better cope with uncertainty in our personal lives? Professor O’Donovan says we should prioritise behaviours that allow our anxious bodies to return to baseline. That means limiting your daily news intake, meditating, exercising, sleeping well, and nurturing social connections. We may not be able to shed our current, collective uncertainty, but we can share the burden. She thinks that for dealing with uncertainty…:
“Community has never been more important.”
💫 Need help in navigating uncertainty? I offer on-the-job guidance and coaching for individuals and teams.
/ Images source: https://vsco.co/saraitokyo/gallery