The New Fool’s Errand: Seeking Certainty in an Uncertain World

December 2010

According to noted futurist Bob Johansen, who specializes in ten-year forecasts, the world is becoming more and more VUCA – his acronym for volatility, uncertainty, complexity and ambiguity. In his book Leaders Make the Future, Johansen makes the case that leaders need to learn how to effectively deal with these characteristics which will continue to grow in amplitude.

If he’s correct, a great many people will get very uncomfortable. People who seek simplicity, certainty, calm and clear definitions and boundaries – which almost everyone wants some time – will be very disappointed. They may be tempted to deny or resist in some way as a matter of coping. Rather than resist this unfolding reality, or deny it, why not learn to work with these qualities and make the best of it?

In reading Bob’s book and listening to him talk, it occurred to me that these VUCA trends may be fueling the rise in fundamentalism I have been writing about over the past few years. While it is obvious that fundamentalist thinking has grown throughout our society, not only in religion but in all disciplines, I couldn’t put my finger on what has been driving this trend. This may be it!

Over the past few decades, there is no doubt that our society – and the issues we are dealing with – has gotten more volatile, complex and ambiguous leading to greater uncertainty. These changes can unnerve some people, bother others and effectively make almost everyone unsettled to some degree. As comfort-seeking mammals, people like certainty. It allows them to relax. They like to understand things, have things figured out, avoid ambiguity and paradox, which are messy and unresolved. They like things calm, soothing and predictable, not unsettled or poised to explode at any time.

As these things we dislike grow in intensity and frequency, we may seek comfort wherever we can find it – or make it up. After all, we are very good at making up explanations for things, whether they are accurate and true or not. Desperation may motivate us to seek certainty where there isn’t any, to oversimplify complex situations, to force clear definitions where none are available and deny volatility to preserve the illusion of calm and steadiness.

When we resort to fundamentalist thinking about anything, we are trying to impose certainty on a situation which defies an easy explanation. We’d rather have our explanation which usually supports our beliefs than sit with the discomfort of being with the ineffable.

So this trend toward fundamentalist thinking may continue to grow given Johansen’s forecast. If you require certainty so badly you are willing to make things up to preserve the illusion, this may be your chosen path. Alternatively, we can take his suggestions and seek out the opportunities in our VUCA world, take advantage of them while listening for the future that wants to happen. Now that’s ineffable!

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John Renesch

John is a seasoned businessman-turned-futurist who has published 14 books and hundreds of articles on social and organizational transformation.

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