What is Uncertainty, and how does acting and deciding in Uncertainty succeed?

Unexpected or unforeseeable events

You travel by car from A to B and have a flat tire on the way. Although the puncture happens unexpectedly, you are prepared for it: you have a spare tyre on board. You will quickly have changed the tyres and the journey to B can continue.

You travel by car from C to D. On the way you suddenly have two defective tyres. At the same time a part of your car roof comes loose and flies in a high arc into the ditch next to the road. You were not prepared for this event. Even with the best planning there would have been no way to prepare for this event, because it was unforeseeable. You cannot continue your journey immediately.

Uncertainty is the sum of all unforeseeable events. Unforeseeable events are those that are not anticipated despite professional planning. This distinguishes them from unexpected events, which can also occur if not sufficiently planned or prepared. In projects and during the development of products they occur, for example, in the form of

  • new customer requirements,
  • changed product specifications,
  • changes in the planning process,
  • delays in development,
  • quality deficiencies in the supplier network,
  • delivery failures,
  • personnel changes or
  • changed legal conditions.

In addition to an appropriate project plan, expectation management and risk management are important measures to reduce the number of unexpected events in the direction of unforseeable events.

Uncertainty - the sum of all unforeseeable events

What are the attitudes towards the concept of uncertainty?

When dealing with uncertainty, two fundamentally different attitudes come together:

  • One is the opinion that uncertainty is an integral, determining phenomenon of our lives and therefore cannot be controlled.
  • Others consider uncertainty to be a phenomenon that can be reduced – even eliminated – by an increase in knowledge; this creates the impression of (potential) controllability.

Ultimately, it does not play a decisive role for a fruitful handling of uncertainty, which attitude one feels more in line with, because even the apparent controllability through knowledge is a vision that lies far in the future.

Acting and deciding in uncertainty

In order to be or remain capable of making decisions and acting in uncertainty, a sense of security is needed. This perceived security can be created by applying a wide variety of approaches to uncertainty that model structural aspects of uncertainty or lead to a fruitful handling of uncertainty through awareness of one’s own competencies. The necessary competencies can be learned and trained in advance of unforeseeable events. The available offer from science and practice is far-reaching, an overview is given by a study of GPM.¹

A helpful description for acting and deciding in uncertainty comes from Prof. Fritz Böhle, a social scientist from Munich. According to this, subjective action – colloquially one could also speak of intuition here – is the appropriate form for acting in uncertainty. Subjectifying action requires objective action, e.g. in the form of planning.

Objectifying action Subjectifying action
Approach According to plan, guided by planning; separation of planning and execution Experimental, dialogical-explorative and -iterative
Thinking Formalisable, categorical (technical) knowledge; logical-formal, analytical thinking Associative, perceptually guided, pictorial, behavioural and experiential, comprehensible
Perception Precise, objective registration Complex sensory perception, sensory experience and feelings
Relationship Distant, objective, affective-neutral Personal, proximity, unity (empathy)

Prof. Böhle has also researched the fact that action and decision making are intertwined in uncertainty, in contrast to certain situations in which planning is first performed, then decisions are made and then action is taken.

Uncertainty as opportunity

Uncertainty tends to be viewed in deficit in our culture. Uncertainty “disrupts” our good plans. Acting and deciding in uncertainty is often retrospectively classified as “right” or “wrong” instead of constructively testing new ideas for solutions. This deficient approach is due to our rational culture and the increasing mechanisation since the beginning of the industrial revolution. It is increasingly questioned by science, especially by findings from social scientists and neuroscientists. At the same time, the perspective on uncertainty is gradually changing in economic practice in such a way that uncertainty is perceived as an opportunity with economic potential.


Impulse to discuss:

Uncertainty and insecurity are not synonymous.


[1] Here you can find a German study of GPM on the topic of uncertainty.  

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