Unleash innovation by discovering the upside of uncertainty

There is only one certainty in uncertain times – the need to innovate. INSEAD Professor Nathan Furr on how to reframe uncertainty to unleash possibility

Uncertain times are a catalyst for innovation acceleration. But first you must face the fear of uncertainty.

So says Professor Nathan Furr on a video call with Business Chief from his home in Paris.

And Furr should know. Because, as well as teaching innovation and technology strategy at INSEAD, arguably the world’s leading business school, the Professor has spent the last two decades interviewing innovators all over the world.

“Nothing could be more important, in the long run, than innovation and experimentation,” declares Furr.

“We live in a world of constant change and the only way forward in a world of uncertainty is through experimentation. We must recreate ourselves and our organisations, step by step, all the time – otherwise, we become obsolete with time.”

Furr points to Amazon founder Jeff Bezos as a leader obsessed with this concept of constant recreation. “He named the building where he worked ‘Day 1’ to remind everyone that the moment they start to sit back and think they have arrived is the moment that decline will set in."

And at no time is the need to recreate, innovate and reach for new possibilities more pertinent than now, when the fallout from the pandemic has fundamentally changed the way organisations do business and economic uncertainty intensifies. 

Facing the fear of uncertainty

Furr argues that the main inhibitor of innovation is not uncertainty per se, but our fear of the uncertainty of change because we don’t know what is on the other side.

“Humans are wired to be afraid of uncertainty,” he says. “This made sense 100,000 years ago when anything foreign could be potentially lethal. But we no longer need to fear the unknown in the same way because we now live in a world that is radically safer, and full of incredible possibilities.”

Approaching uncertainty is the only way we ‘step out’ into this field of potential to evolve, explains Furr – who for more than two decades has been interviewing innovators and has discovered that to do anything new, they all faced uncertainty first.

“They had to step into the unknown before discovering possibilities. I was curious about how these innovators and entrepreneurs overcame their fear of uncertainty.”

Drawing from these hundreds of interviews, as well as pioneering research in psychology, innovation, and behavioural economics, Furr has co-authored a new book, designed to help organisations and leaders embrace uncertainty and transform it into a force for good.

In The Upside of Uncertainty: Finding Possibility in the Unknown, Furr and entrepreneur Susannah Harmon Furr deliver dozens of tools and techniques that can be used to face, navigate, and see the upside of uncertainty.

“The framework we have developed is meant to encourage everyone to meet every uncertainty with hope, creativity, and belief in the upside you may not yet see.”

Re-frame uncertainty as possibility 

To enable this, Furr argues the need to reframe the uncertainty in terms of its possibility rather than the potential losses.

We are wired to fear losses and seek gains, he says, and the challenge is that uncertainty almost always registers as a potential loss, and so we end up being afraid of it, try to reduce it, or avoid it altogether. But the problem is that any new possibility only comes after going through uncertainty.

“Consider the moments in your own life of which you are most proud – the career change, the relationship risk, moving somewhere new. All these possibilities came only after first facing uncertainty. The same is true for innovators. To accomplish anything new, they first must learn to face uncertainty to capture an opportunity.”

Furr says uncertainty and possibility are really two sides of the same coin, and that the same is true of unplanned uncertainties, like the pandemic, job loss, or other crises. While these unplanned uncertainties certainly have very real downsides, they also come with new possibilities.

And if both businesses and individuals can re-frame uncertainty in terms of the opportunity – the gain – rather than the loss, we will feel less anxiety and more courage.

“Consider the difference during the pandemic between leaders who framed the pandemic as the ‘worst thing’ that has ever happened to us versus those who framed it in terms of ‘our chance to prove ourselves’,” he Furr, adding that the “positive forward momentum in the latter was massive.”

The same principle is true in other settings, such as responding to a potential disruption. Furr says that while leaders often talk about the importance of establishing a ‘burning platform’ to motivate people, the most famous application of that phrase hails from a company that failed to respond – Nokia.

“Rather, empirical research shows that leaders who frame a disruption in terms of the opportunity, rather than uncertainty, are much more effective in leading positive responses to the disruption,” he argues.

Borders vs Barnes & Noble is a case in point. The major difference between success in failure in this case came down to how Barnes & Noble actively and constantly framed the threat created by Amazon as an opportunity to do business in new and different ways, leading to a very positive response.

Uncertainty ability – discovering possibilities 

So, what skillsets or qualities must leaders leverage to transform uncertainty into opportunity?

Furr talks about the idea of ‘uncertainty ability’ – the ability of an individual to discover the possibilities in an uncertain world – and says that leaders today have an incredibly powerful opportunity to demonstrate uncertainty ability because their teams look to them as a source of courage and vision.

“Authentic courage and vision always embrace and admit that not knowing and failure are natural obstacles on the way to transformation and success,” he says.

“Leaders who understand that every possibility comes with uncertainty – and reward the team members who are willing to embrace and lead projects without having all the knowledge or resources – will foster company-wide ‘uncertainty ability’.”

By doing this, leaders can acquire what Furr refers to as ‘transilience’, a central concept in The Upside of Uncertainty, which represents an ability beyond resilience. So while resilience is being able to withstand shocks and recover, transilience is about transformation – about leaping from one state to another.

Furr describes it as the moment when hardened steel turns to molten metal, ordinary stone becomes smooth sculpture, and terrifying uncertainty becomes insight, wisdom, and opportunity.

“In the setting of uncertainty, transilience is the moment when you realise that you can turn uncertainty into a possibility,” he concludes.

Innovation and the case for reading

According to Professor Nathan Furr, the research on innovation is clear – new ideas come from recombining the ideas around us, not from dreaming up something completely unconnected to anything else.

“Reading is one of the best ways to make these connections,” he argues. “For inspiration and new ideas, I read articles from many fields, some related to mine, such as strategy, innovation, entrepreneurship, and others more distant – such as biology, physics, materials science.”

Furr says he also likes to read broadly in the humanities – to do deep dives, like reading modern Japanese fiction, works by expats in Paris in the early 20th century, contemporary science fiction, philosophy, and psychology.

“But my favourite reads are the great works of literature,” he says. “Because while technology, strategy and innovation can help us to live, literature teaches us how to live well.”


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