Last week the giant crystal ball dropped in Times Square as we officially welcomed in 2009. But as we move into the New Year there’s no crystal ball to show us what’s in store, leaving us uncertain about the future.!@!
While uncertainty generally has an anxious, negative connotation, A. Alexandra Michel, an assistant professor with Marshall School of Business at the University of Southern California, says uncertainty in terms of job function is a good thing.
Michel examines two major U.S. investment banks with differing business strategy philosophies. The bank that “amplified uncertainty” in its workforce fared better than the bank that tried to reduce its employees’ uncertainty. In fact, Michel’s research suggests people are generally better at complex jobs when they “know less.”
This study became the basis for Michel’s book, Bullish on Uncertainty: How Organizational Cultures Transform Participants. Michel recommends exercising strategies such as “training that highlights contradictions” and presenting “fluid job roles.”
To learning leaders, encouraging an air of the unknown may seem counterintuitive. However, we live in an uncertain world, and Michel says discouraging employees from descending into routine helps them to better cope with the reality of contradictions and the unique demands of different situations.
She also says adopting the tactic of “staffing based on availability” rather than expertise is conducive to organizational learning. As employees realize their lack of knowledge in one area, they’re forced to work with others to get the answers they need. This breeds distribution of knowledge throughout the entire enterprise. Ultimately, Michel strives to create “insecure overachievers,” employees whose constant doubts force them to collaborate with one another.
As this unpredictable world continues to change, aspiring to become an “expert” with all the answers seems a rather whimsical notion, to be placed alongside the fortune teller and the crystal ball. I’m curious to know your reactions to Michel’s methods. Has your organization ever made a conscious effort to increase uncertainty among its professionals? Do you believe amplifying uncertainty in an organization produces positive results?