Why Uncertainty May Be More Important Than Innovation to Achieve Commercial Success


"In my experience, it’s always a matter of when, not if, a surprise will hit you on your path to a new future." - Richard Sokolov

Commercial Success 

Product development is by and large a commercial endeavour. Niche or mass market, success has traditionally been measured in sales. And now in the new connection economy, success is also measured in attention and permission. How many followers do you have on twitter? Most likely more than I do, not hard!
I have been spending a bit of time looking at start-ups lately. Having been lucky enough to be a part of our own startup story with ide and experiencing firsthand the anxiety and stress that comes along with it, I am always keen to see how others are approaching the challenge of getting products off the ground.  

Shows like “Dragon's Den”, “Shark Tank” and “Invent it Rich” have been making "Starting-Up" mainstream and turning entrepreneurs into household names. But behind the scenes it’s not always smooth sailing. For many start-ups it can be a rough journey into new, uncharted territory and by now we all know the stats for ‘making it’. 

What makes a startup succeed when others so often fail?

Most of the talk about what governs ‘success’ usually revolves around a few common themes. Ideas, creativity, delighting customers or at least meeting their needs, creating new meaning, determination and perseverance. Themes that are all usually summed up in that catch all i-word, no not the phone…innovation. These are all wonderful positive themes that inspire and motivate. Who doesn’t want to be creative and innovative in creating a new business?! All of this makes for good news stories that capture our attention, but perhaps we are missing something.

Thinking about it a little, I often see a lot of these themes running through companies that ‘make it’ and even a lot of the good ones that unfortunately don’t quite get there. So, what if the underlying theme governing success was something more subtle and less charismatic and inspiring? Lots of questions right, just like at the start of a project, but that’s the point…uncertainty. 

The ability to embrace uncertainty 

All start-ups begin with a problem or an opportunity, or the way I like to think of it, a hope. A hope for something better, more suitable or useful, something more desirable, delightful and ultimately more meaningful. Most of the time, this problem or opportunity manifests itself in a sea of uncertainty where there are more  questions than answers. 

Some questions may be obvious and some may only be breaking the surface. But instead of acknowledging this uncertainty, there is a tendency to focus on the things we can control and fashion. Sometimes it is easier to focus on what is right with what you have created and the possible outcomes rather than what is wrong or could go wrong. Critique and scepticism can be thought of as negative themes but when harnessed correctly, they can be incredibly powerful and positive forces for success.    

Some, and I include myself for a time, equated risk with uncertainty. Gerd Gigerenzer in his book “Risk Savvy: How to Make Good Decisions” set me straight. He defines risk or “known risks” as probabilities that can be measured empirically, where good decisions require logic and statistical thinking. As opposed to uncertainty, where these measurements are not possible. The world of uncertainty is huge compared to risk. To paraphrase Gigerenzer, you can only deal with uncertainty using intuition and good rules of thumb. 

That may be scary for most of us who think that risk is something that can  be predicted, mitigated or minimised with clear processes. Think FMEAs, FTAs and Risk Management in general. Don’t get me wrong these are all powerful and sound techniques to manage risks of known parameters, particularly when your product begins to take shape. However, how many start-ups even get to that stage? 

Learning the language of uncertainty

Uncertainty is common to all endeavours and I am starting to think that those who understand the distinction between risk and uncertainty are the ones that are more assured of success. So why not welcome and embrace uncertainty. One way we have begun to do that on our projects is to think in the language of uncertainty, questions. Framing our work and planning in terms of questions sharpens the senses. Questions set out a course of action that wont necessarily predict what is going to go wrong, but keeps the team on its toes to react swiftly to counteract or minimise the impact a surprise could have on your fragile start-up. In my experience, it is always a matter of when, not if, a surprise will hit you on your path to a new future. 

Uncovering, pre-empting or agitating what may jeopardise your startup and ensuring you are supple enough to absorb what comes your way is just as important as being innovative, creative and persistent.  Ultimately, by looking at your project in terms of questions, you start to see what is truly important to actually succeeding. At ide we are starting to dig deeper to uncover how best to grapple with uncertainty, so stay tuned! 
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Resources: Gerd Gigerenzer, (2014), Risk Savvy: How to Make Good Decisions

Erin Evanochko