Last month I was invited to a brainstorming session hosted by IDEO. The focus was on Innovation in Evaluation and one of the outputs is a blog authored by IDEO and hosted by GOOD magazine. The brainstorming session concluded with the identification of a number of core concepts that we discussed and a promise from IDEO to explore these topics further. This week, IDEO’s Aaron Sklar wrote a post on the GOOD blog in which he answered the question “How Might We Increase Comfort as We Navigate Uncertainty?”
Anyone who engages with new ideas must develop a certain level of comfort with uncertainty. Once an organization takes a step beyond what it has successfully done in the past—a new offering or engaging a new group of people—uncertainty becomes an uneasy factor. At a firm like IDEO, stepping into the unknown is a daily experience, and those drawn to collaborating with us are compelled to break away from the status quo, accepting the risks and discomfort that accompany bold moves.
…Below, we suggest four approaches to help organizations increase their level of comfort while making decisions in the face of uncertainty.
He then laid out four core ideas and explained each.
- Determine what to measure early on.
- Learn by doing.
- Let indicators lead the way.
- Refine what you are measuring as you learn more.
You can read all of Aaron’s post with his explanation of each approach by clicking here.
IDEO asked me to write a response to Aaron’s post on the GOOD blog. As I prepared to sketch out my ideas, I realized that while I thought Aaron was spot on, his suggestions were ways to overcome uncertainty. I wonder if instead, we need to learn to accept uncertainty. This is what I came up with.
In his recent post, Aaron Sklar gave an excellent set of recommendations that focused on ways to decrease uncertainty by measuring proxies for the inevitably messy business of creating social impact. But in addition to finding ways to evaluate under conditions of uncertainty, I think it is critical that we get comfortable with the discomfort that uncertainty causes.
The question under consideration assumes that we should seek comfort in the way we tackle problems of social impact. But I wonder, at the risk of sounding too Zen, if instead we need to accept the idea that the business of creating social impact is one that explicitly makes people uncomfortable.
It isn’t fun to feel uncomfortable, but it isn’t terrible. In fact, in many cases, philanthropists are attempting to fund programs serving people who are far more uncomfortable than then donor will ever be. The “discomfort” stemming from a lack of access to water or an unplanned teenage pregnancy simply dwarfs the “discomfort” that a donor might feel from grant-making under conditions of uncertainty.
Great investors in the for-profit space have come to accept the discomfort of uncertainty. Baron Rothschild, a member of the great banking family, is known to have said, “Buy when there’s blood in the streets.” And Warren Buffett warns that “You pay a very high price in the stock market for a cheery consensus.” In other words, if everyone agrees with your investment decision, then it is probably not a good one.
Blood in the streets? Investing when no one agrees with you? Talk about discomfort and uncertainty. In fact, I believe that the discomfort caused by uncertainty is a requirement of great philanthropy. Great outcomes are achieved when an appropriate level of risk is undertaken; risk is caused by uncertainty, and uncertainty causes discomfort. We should not just advocate for philanthropy to become comfortable with uncertainty, but to acknowledge that great grant-making requires funders to accept discomfort.
Humans don’t like to take risks. We are evolutionarily designed to be risk adverse. But good philanthropy, just like good investing, requires taking risks. Maybe a Zen approach to evaluation isn’t just a new age joke. Maybe accepting discomfort rather than trying to overcome it is the key to navigating uncertainty.
- How can philanthropists learn when discomfort stems from appropriate risk taking and when it signals an intuitive response to which the donor should listen?
- Behavioral finance and psychology have offered investors many lessons on avoiding the traps that encourage them to succumb to discomfort. What lessons might philanthropy learn from these disciplines?
You can find the original post here.