Alex Ryan
Alex Ryan
Sep 22, 2016 · 5 min read

Alex Ryan and Chenny Xia

The surprise vote in favour of Brexit unleashed uncertainty about the future course of the European Union, the United Kingdom, Scotland, and Ireland. Brexit illustrates how we often react when we are faced with the unknown. The British Pound plummeted to its lowest level since 1985. Lloyds Bank and Virgin Group axed deals worth £9 billion pounds and 3,000 jobs respectively. The safe haven of gold spiked 22 per cent. Brexit created shock waves around the globe. In India, Kiran Mazumdar-Shaw, Chief Managing Director of Biocon, said:

It has opened up a Pandora’s box of grave uncertainties. Will Euro [sic] remain intact or will we see others exit? What will be the impact on the Euro itself? Will it devalue and to what extent?… India cannot be in denial that it will be immune to such a result and that there is likely to be mayhem for several weeks before things stabilise.

There is a curious paradox at play here. As a species, humans crave certainty — yet our greatest superpower is our ability to navigate uncertainty.

Why do we seek certainty?

Psychologists theorize that the resolution of uncertainty is one of the primary motives for our behaviour. If we think of the brain as a prediction machine, a significant percentage of the brain’s processing power is devoted to recognizing and eliminating uncertainty. It motivates us to read the news, exchange gossip, and constantly generate and test predictions about the world around us.

How do you respond to uncertainty?

Imagine your boss announcing a company reorganization without saying what the new structure will be, or if it will involve job cuts. Your instinct to “fight-or-flight” kicks in. If you’re really confident, you might openly challenge your boss. More likely, when you get back to your desk you will renew your search for other job opportunities.

Although this primal instinct may be powerful, it may also lead to irrational and erratic decisions. We tend to react to the feeling of uncertainty, rather than the specifics of the situation we are in. What if instead of opposing or running from uncertainty, you choose to collaborate with it?

Collaborating with Uncertainty

In the 1950s, the American fighter pilot John Boyd, was known for his standing bet that he could beat any opponent in air combat within 40 seconds — because of how he managed uncertainty.

Boyd showed us that as a fighter pilot, he could gain a huge advantage not by having the perfect plan in advance, but by remaining oriented in a constantly changing situation. By making rapid decisions and taking actions based on continuous observation of the unfolding situation, Boyd could maintain his orientation while making his opponent increasingly frustrated — which in turn, created opportunities for him to strike. For Boyd, uncertainty was a source of novelty and creativity in our thinking and in our world.

Using “SCOPE” to Discover Opportunities

Changing how we respond to uncertainty empowers us to explore new growth opportunities. To help, we’ve created a series of simple steps to follow in uncertain situations:

Symptoms: Noticing that we are responding negatively to uncertainty allows us to choose to do something differently. When uncertainty causes you to feel threatened, ask yourself if you are afraid of something that could really, physically hurt you, or if you are just feeling uncertain.

Causes: The initial explanation you tell yourself about why you are feeling uncertain is unlikely to be the best explanation. You need to dig deeper to surface some of the root drivers.

Options: Generate lots of options for how you could respond to the situation. Go wild! It’s much easier to scale a crazy idea down to something you could work with, than to scale a timid idea up into something really innovative.

Probes: Scale down your most promising options into bite-size experiments that will generate talk-back from the situation.

Evaluation: Listen carefully to how the situation responds to your probes. Pay particular attention to surprises. If one of your probes generates a positive outcome, find ways to grow its success.

SCOPE provides a way to see the opportunity in uncertainty.

Case Study: The Western Canadian Rail Crisis

In the fall of 2013, farmers in Western Canada harvested a huge crop — almost 40% higher than normal. This was followed by a brutal winter, where temperatures plunged below -30° Celcius. Due to the extreme weather, rail capacity to ship out the crop was almost halved.

By the end of the year, what should have been a hugely profitable year for farmers into a $1.5 billion lost opportunity, as 60 million tonnes of goods sat trapped in bins across the prairies. Farmers, companies, and politicians all started pointing fingers at one another.

In early 2014, the Government of Alberta was unsure how to respond to the situation. Was this a freak occurrence, or were there deeper issues with the rail transportation system? Traditionally, they would have assigned the responsibility to a single ministry — the Ministry of Transportation in this case — and hold them accountable for solving it. Because of the complexity of the issue, the government decided to do something different. They asked their new innovation unit, Alberta CoLab, to lead a cross-ministry response, which followed the SCOPE steps.

From Symptoms to Causes. Participants across four ministries were brought together to work on the issue. They started to develop a shared understanding of the current situation, and why it was happening. Next, they identified and circled those areas where the government had influence and where positive change was possible (see figure below).

Surfacing deeper drivers of the Western Canadian rail crisis.

Options Development. Having collaboratively diagnosed the situation, the group then brainstormed hundreds of ideas on how to respond. Selection criteria were developed and the best ideas were organized along a timeline based on their point of impact.

Probes and Evaluation. An innovative and temporary organizational structure was created to learn and act quickly on and in the situation. The Rail Transportation Task Team convened members from across four ministries and ran for six months. The team performed rapid cycles of work and reported weekly to four Deputy Ministers. Evaluation occurred with each iteration of the probes developed by the team. At the end of the six months, the team transferred the work back into the Ministry of Transportation.

The SCOPE steps helped the team to lean into the uncertainty of the project and accelerate cross-ministry collaboration, rather than getting stuck in analysis paralysis.


Uncertainty lives in an uncomfortable space that we often try to avoid. It’s never going to go away, and our default “fight-or-flight” responses are rarely the best options.

By learning how to collaborate with uncertainty, we can take a different approach and mindset to unlock an entirely new sets of opportunities that we wouldn’t otherwise see.

The Overlap

Conversations that matter

Alex Ryan

Written by

Alex Ryan

VP Systems Innovation and Program Director MaRS Solutions Lab. Fascinated with learning how to help groups of people innovate on complex problems together.

The Overlap

Conversations that matter

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