Traditionally, uncertainty has been something we try to export. Communities, organisations and countries spent time and energy ensuring that anything challenging their certainty and sense of control was removed from within their line of sight sent somewhere over the horizon. Imagine, for example, a corporate film from the 1950s. See in your mind’s eye what was depicted – happy, satisfied workers producing excellent products that people wanted, in clean, well-organised factories. (See this one as a great example.)
Nothing wrong with that you might say and by and large I would have agreed with you – especially in times past when I too was sold on this modernist ideal. Except we now know that behind the shiny image lay a darker shadow. The completeness of both the physical and human ecologies behind this ideal was flawed. The physical environment was over-consumed by built in redundancy and the waste products became pollution. The interpersonal environment was stripped of its diversity. People’s emotional wellbeing was managed pharmacologically. People of colour, (at the level of their skin or their psyche) were banished. All waste products, both the physical ones and the psychic ones, were disappeared into landfill. Countries in the Developed World fulfilled (and to some extent continue to fulfil) their ideals by exporting their waste or exploiting the resources of other places, out of the mind’s eye. Their certainty of vision is only maintained by its shadow, Dorian Grey-like, in the attics of far off States.
(At this time, when we commemorate the 50th Anniversary of JFK’s assassination, it is notable how his image remains so pure. As one commentator put it, his untimely death ensured that his reputation could remain perennial – it has become a silver screen on which Americans continue to project their ideals. Unlike Obama of course, whose promise of hope was always doomed by the dirty vagaries of real life.)
Similarly, companies with corporate social responsibility charters outsource their supply chains to partners who which cannot always guarantee the same level of probity. Indeed, how else can they offer such a substantial saving? Recently we witnessed hospitals bring their cleaning services back in house as the only way they could consolidate their fight against resistant infections. This is both literately and symbolically figurative of what I am saying.
So perhaps we are at a stage where there is no longer any possibility to throw things ‘away’, because ‘away’ is here. We now recognise that organisations, counties, even us people ourselves, are open systems, and what goes on beyond our immediate physical boundaries is still of a concern to us, because we are bound within a single ecosystem, in all its diversity. The picture of the earth from space did not only give us a sense of the fragile earth but also a placement of ourselves within a much bigger cosmos.
Yet now we are realising that it makes business sense to study this single ecosystem more carefully. And one part of this ecosystem that requires our due diligence is uncertainty. Uncertainty is a key waste product in organisational change, and organisations banish it at their peril. Like other waste products, it eventually overflows the tanks designed to store it if it is simply ignored, turning into its more toxic distillate, anxiety. This uncertainty must be contained yes but also re-composted. We need to do business with it, like all by-products of industrial scale processes. This is the job of OD and learning professionals – to help people manage, contain and direct, to live with uncertainty. Everyone else wants to banish it, as we have always done. Those in finance, project management, facilities – they all want uncertainty bagged and shipped out as fast as possible. In the spirit of ‘OD adding to the organisational system what’s not currently present’, it falls to us process this uncertainty, and that means living with it and managing our own. There is no longer anywhere ‘away’ for us to throw it.