5 Tips to Turn Uncertainty into Opportunities for Innovation

Author information: Andy Gordon , Senior Innovation Designer , Post information: , 5 min read ,
Related post categories: Digital products ,

TL;DR: There is an upside to uncertainty. It can present nonprofits with new pathways to reimagine, accelerate and amplify desired change. We can uncover hidden opportunities by, counterintuitively, leaning into it and experimenting to learn.


Uncertainty offers pathways for Progress

The saying often accredited to the Greek philosopher Heraclitus, "The only constant in life is change," holds particular resonance in 2023.

The landscape Nonprofits and Charities navigate is being continually reshaped by everything from societal shifts, political conflicts, and supply chain disruptions through to a myriad of other factors.

Daily events can disrupt current trajectories. And the organisations we work with already navigate missions that place them in complex or chaotic terrains.

Uncertainty is fertile ground for innovation and transformation. It's an opportunity to question and reimagine outdated approaches in service of fresh solutions and strategies.

With these terrains and constant change comes the discomfort of uncertainty.

Embracing uncertainty to harness its potential

To do that, we must first embrace the unknown and venture beyond our comfort zones.

Naomi Klein, author of Shock Doctrines, and Duncan Green, strategic advisor to Oxfam and author of How change happens, both highlight the opportunities for change in unforeseen shocks as well as adaptability. Both give rich insights into the need to foster a culture of resilience, learning, and agility, enabling organisations to not merely withstand shocks, but to evolve through them.

For the partners we support, those shocks might be a technology breakthrough such as AI, a sudden important donation withdrawal or an unexpected regulatory shift.

Both sudden changes and ongoing ambiguities offer us a chance to pause, reflect and rethink.

By addressing immediate and past or overlooked uncertainties, organisations can evolve their strategies to navigate the complexities of their environment more adeptly.

Finding opportunities in ambiguity

Innovation is often communicated as a concise 5 stage Design thinking process or some sort of version of the Double diamond. In practice, however, it often more accurately resembles Damien Newman's "Design Squiggle". The journey is nonlinear.

We rely on a combination of experience, intuition and trust in the process to set direction, ultimately finding the right path forward.

Here are 5 of our top tips to navigate uncertainty, build confidence through learning and find the hidden opportunities for progress:

1. Look for the future

No one can predict the future. Changes in complex systems are unpredictable, outcomes are emergent. But we can ensure we are future-ready, preparing for various possible outcomes as well as actively looking for pockets of the future that exist today.

We do this by actively scanning the horizon for signals of change and creatively exploring possible future scenarios in order to unearth new pathways to shape and influence the future we want to exist. These might be a cultural shift, the introduction of a policy, technological innovation or an unexpected event that enables us to accelerate or amplify positive impact.

Tools such as horizon scanning, scenario planning, and SWOT analyses, when paired with questions such as "So what?" or "What if?", can provide valuable insights. They help us to understand our organisation's current position, the art of the possible, and ultimately, inform innovation strategy.

The "Three Horizons" framework, devised by Bill Sharpe, is an excellent tool to help us think about the future. We use it to guide us when creating new solutions and strategies.

Embracing futures methods and ensuring we are anchored to our purpose, while maintaining organisational agility, can empower us to thrive amidst uncertainty and pivot our course as circumstances dictate.

2. Articulate the challenge

Often, uncertainty appears as an immediate problem.

The first step is to clearly articulate the challenge, as it is currently understood. This may sound obvious but we’ve all, likely, experienced a time where shared clarity of a challenge has been assumed with misalignment and divergent action proceeding.

A clear challenge statement offers a basis for discussion and mutual understanding.

It helps us to identify what type of challenge we’re facing and the appropriate response. A challenge statement for an organisation tackling food poverty might look something like this:

“We are facing the challenge of rising food shortages in city areas due to higher living costs and an ageing population. We immediate solutions, but also find long-term strategies for better food access for everyone, especially those in need.”

Over time, as we gain more insight, the challenge framing should and will evolve. This challenge statement is the foundation for creative springboards when positively reframed.

Bypassing this step hampers our ability to take a step back, zoom out and see the broader context.

3. Zooming in and out

Taking a systems view helps us understand the context and problem.

The issues that present themselves are often indicators of deeper systemic ones. By zooming in and out, we can gain a multi-dimensional understanding of the challenge and identify opportunities beneath the surface.

At Torchbox we often employ systems thinking tools like the iceberg model. We complement this with various forms of system mapping. The objective is always to understand the intricate web of relationships within a system. We can then grasp the system dynamics at play, underlying patterns and identify the root causes of problems.

It’s through this process of seeking to understand the system that we gain key insights, identify underlying assumptions and find new opportunities.

The result might be a specific knowledge gap, hypothesis about why something is happening or a place in the systems to intervene for the most impact.

4. Setting clear direction, experiment to learn

In complex situations, there is often no obvious path.

This is why setting a clear direction for exploration is crucial. Hypotheses are the coordinates for our compass.

Experimentation is the heart of innovation, and effective experiments provide insights that guide decision-making by testing critical assumptions and adjusting action as needed.

Experiments come in all shapes and sizes. They run from early conversations to A/B testing through to physical pop-ups.

An effective experiment consists of three things:

A robust hypothesis, or hypotheses. A well-defined test, which often includes a tangible artefact like a tool, static page or sketch. Finally it includes a specified metric and criteria for success.

Assumption mapping paired with Strategyzer's test and learning cards are excellent tools to kickstart experimentation.

5. Positive reframe

Lastly, it's essential to reframe problems positively.

Human brains, specifically the amygdala, have evolved to prioritise our defence mechanisms. Born from the days of dodging sabre-toothed tigers our neural pathways have been hardwired to perceive threats.

We process them as fear. Fear leads to stress.

Not an ideal foundation for any team activity. Even worse if the aim is to foster creativity or generate new ideas.

Turning challenges into "How might we..." statements transform problems into opportunities, fostering creativity.

For instance, if humanitarian supplies are not reaching recipients promptly and we have identified that the root cause is a delay stemming from extended waiting times for food loading onto trucks, thereby causing drivers to miss their allocated slots:

Positive Reframe: How might we optimise the food loading process to enable our humanitarian drivers to embark on their routes efficiently and expedite aid delivery?

Understanding your uncertainty tolerance

Understanding tolerance for uncertainty is vital for innovators and changemakers.

For those seeking to enhance their understanding, resources like Uncertainty experts offer insights into the neuroscience behind uncertainty tolerance. They also offer a fun, free test to assess our personal tolerance to uncertainty.

Not quite yet ready to weather it alone?

Well, we’re here to help.

Edd and I will be unpacking each of these areas further over the coming weeks. You can also join us for our next webinar where we showcase some of the most exciting, recent AI use cases across multiple sectors and industries, from Coca-Cola to Dogs Trust, and highlight insights and tools to harness its power for your organisation’s innovation journey.

15th November, 10am. Find out more and register here.

Author information: Andy Gordon , Senior Innovation Designer , Post information: , 5 min read ,
Related post categories: Digital products ,