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The Impact of Radical Uncertainty on People

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Humans look for certainty as that makes them feel safe. Suddenly becoming an entirely distributed team due to the pandemic disrupted people. According to Kara Langford, radical uncertainty can cause people to believe they are in danger and lead to health issues. People will respond differently to uncertainty, both negative and positive; uncertainty has also shown to lead to fresh ideas, innovations, and social good.

Kara Langford, postgraduate researcher (PhD) at the University of East Anglia, spoke about radical uncertainty and how this impacts people at Aginext 2021.

Langford defines radical uncertainty as:

Extreme uncertainty that occurs, at least initially, fairly acutely, creating an ongoing situation where there is a profound inability to forecast stability, make decisions and assess potential outcomes.

Humans really want things to be as certain as they possibly can be because certainty is synonymous with safety, Langford explained. We have a number of cognitive biases and heuristics that achieve this; such as the "availability heuristic" which means the easier we can recall something occurring, the more likely we think it is that it may occur again.

Langford mentioned that when things become uncertain, our brains usually believe that we are in danger, even though this may not actually be representative of the immediate situation:

During the pandemic, many people have experienced mental and physical health issues, some of which are directly attributable to the virus itself, but others are as a consequence of the myriad of changes to daily life that have emerged over the past year.

This myriad of changes due to the pandemic is a possible impact of radical uncertainty on people; a caveat however is that not every single person reacts in exactly the same way to the same situations, as Langford explained:

Depending on a variety of individual factors, there may be those for whom this "danger sense" does not result in a manifestation (either mental or physical) of a potentially negative state such as anxiety, instead counteracting the "danger sense" through engaging in action such as physical activity or problem-solving. This is where the potential for a positive impact on people shows, through ideas and innovation, community action and social good that we’ve also seen occurring regularly during the past year.

InfoQ interviewed Kara Langford about radical uncertainty.

InfoQ: How would you define radical uncertainty?

Kara Langford: The crucial thing is that with the overall concept of uncertainty, we are usually looking at something that is temporally placed in a potential future but feels distanced enough to give some time for assessment of options and outcomes. Radical uncertainty is ongoing, where the likelihood of change is high and when it will occur is utterly indeterminable.

InfoQ: What impact does radical uncertainty have on people?

Langford: We are primally wired to engage in pattern recognition and identification of causality, which is vital for understanding the cycles of nature so that we would know when certain food was available or when predators may be nearby. This aspect of our brains still drives a lot of our behaviours, which leads us to make assumptions and undertake actions that our brains believe make us safe, because we are certain of the consequent outcomes.

The Covid-19 pandemic has caused a global natural experiment to occur, the likes of which we have not seen for almost 100 years and which (I’m pretty sure!) it is not desirable to experience again. If we are to learn from this experience, then I believe we do need to undertake research into a gamut of topics, of which my research aims to play a part. As we like to say in the agile world, it’s really important that we don’t skip the retro on this one!

InfoQ: At Aginext you facilitated a discussion about how the software industry is dealing with radical uncertainty. What came up during this discussion?

Langford: This was a really great opportunity and I’m thankful to Aginext for giving me a space in which to talk to people.

Essentially we had a discussion where, after I talked a little about what "radical uncertainty" means, people were candid about their experiences over the past year. It appears that there has definitely been some extreme difference in what has happened to organisations in the software oeuvre; some had a sudden drop in workloads, related to activity undertaken for sectors that had to almost completely shut down.

Others had to expand their teams quickly due to increased demand for services that are underpinned by software solutions, meaning suddenly having to work with new colleagues without having actually met them, which in some cases caused communication issues to emerge; communication is an aspect I believe in as absolutely vital to being agile.

As a sector we are already comfortable with the use of technologies that enable us to work remotely, but there is a difference between when this occurs as an individual choice and it becoming a sweeping change irrespective of preference; suddenly becoming an entirely distributed team was a big disruption! So then there comes the need to adapt and create ways of communicating that are effective for this scenario.

InfoQ: You are doing a PhD on the impact that radical uncertainty has had on agile organisations. What topics are included in this research?

Langford: I’m interested in "if and how" the radical uncertainty caused by the global pandemic has impacted the application of agile in agile software organisations (by this I do specifically mean where the entire organisation operates with an agile ethos, as opposed to agile teams in more traditionally structured organisations). I’m wondering if the uncertainty and complexity caused working practices to change at all, and if so, what impact this has had on overall agility.

For example, to use the agile manifesto as a scale, has there been any shift towards either end of those concepts in order to manage the situation? Has there been even more flexibility used to collaborate with customers, or has the potential financial risk meant that actually contract negotiation had to become more important? Due to the huge increase in working from home, has that meant that actually there’s been a greater need for documentation to support this process, whereas before perhaps things were resolved through in-person communication? Has there become a need to plan more, or have agile organisations actually gone "hyper agile" and thrown out what playbooks they may have had as they just couldn’t work with them in the "new normal"?

These are not necessarily representative at all, but they’re the kinds of questions my brain is asking that I’d like to explore, just to see how the agile community has reacted and used the tools we have, that were created in a more stable reality!

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