You know, there might even be political implications to this
Being unsure of what to do seemed far from being a gift in 1971, when my life-threatening anxiety as a third-year Harvard medical student led to a five-month inpatient stay at the Massachusetts Mental Health Center.
Since then, I have learned the value of uncertainty from many sources: the Rev. William Sloane Coffin, who preached in his book of sermons, “The Courage to Love,” that there needs to be greater tolerance of ambiguity; Socrates (“There is no solution; seek it lovingly”); and, now, Maggie Jackson in last Sunday’s Ideas section (“The gift of being unsure of what to do”).
Jackson’s wise and courageous words need to be shared widely to help prevent Civil War II, particularly these passages: “The greatest obstacle to thoughtful, unifying change is not the wrongness of the other side . . . but the intolerance of uncertainty that places us at a dangerous remove from a nuanced, multifaceted, evolving understanding of reality” and “It’s time to enlist the ‘enemy’ in solving the problems of our days.”
There are hard but crucial lessons here for senior living industry
I appreciated “The gift of being unsure of what to do” and the way it referred to respecting these times of uncertainty as ones of opportunity, creativity, and potential. As a marketer in the senior living industry, I have seen my sector decimated and paralyzed by COVID-19. I’ve seen a lot of talented professionals unable or unwilling to think outside the box, as we find we have to flip the current templates for delivering services, become much better at communicating and owning the current dilemma in elder care, and generally feel an urgency to come up with imaginative, if untried, solutions.
None of us should have been surprised that the coronavirus pandemic has ransacked and stolen the lives and dignities of thousands of elders and their extended families. We knew we housed the frailest of the frail. We knew we had an epidemic of loneliness in our buildings. We knew we had a crisis within the caregiving community itself. Yet almost a year later, we’re still stumbling around as if we’re in day one, wondering what to do and where we are going. Not to mention that we have to do so much in a virtual environment.
I plan to share Jackson’s powerful, provocative article among my network. It suggests that if we can get comfortable getting out of our own practiced ways, we might discover that fresh ideas, born out of being “unsure,” can be exhilarating and contagious, and may even work well.
The organized randomness of the ‘garbage can model’
I teach computer science at Boston University. Many years ago, in graduate school, I came across a theory of organizations based on the idea that those operating under high degrees of uncertainty behave stochastically, that is, randomly. Believe it or not, it is called the garbage can model. It was originally developed to model the behavior of university committees but has been applied to traditional hierarchical organizations.
While some of the recommendations of this model seem like common sense, one sees them violated often. There are certain professions that are trained for tasks that must have low uncertainty. Doctors can’t be questioning the book all the time, whereas researchers must. However, as Jackson points out, doctors have to know when the book doesn’t go far enough.
Pilots are another example. They constantly practice the failure scenarios that will always have aspects of uncertainty so that their reactions to failure are second nature and there is less left to uncertainty.
Years ago, I (accidentally) killed all support among my co-workers for Ross Perot in his run for president when I noted that Electronic Data Systems, the company he founded, was a low-uncertainty firm and that one could make lots of money doing low-uncertainty tasks well. But then I asked, how many low-uncertainty problems would Perot encounter as president?
In high tech, those who understand how to manage uncertainty are generally more successful than those who try to manage it as a low-uncertainty problem. One of the common mistakes in business is to take a good manager of low-uncertainty projects and put them in charge of a troublesome high-uncertainty project.
It is good to see this often-neglected topic get an airing.