Accepting Discomfort as We Navigate Uncertainty

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?”

Aaron wrote:

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.

Originally posted on the GOOD Magazine Innovation in Evaluation blog.

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.


  1. Laura Deaton says:

    Hi, Sean – Good post! I’d take it one step further, though, and suggest that if we actually embrace uncertainty, then a certain amount of the discomfort goes away, freeing us to also embrace the challenges of navigating without answers, and the opportunity to create a chart a real, new future. As Hildy Gottlieb says in the recently published Pollyanna Principles, “We are creating the future, right now, with every decision we make, with every word we speak, with every action we take.” That said, the future is always uncertain, and I find that exciting!

  2. Very good point. I took the tact of saying we should accept discomfort to get comfortable with uncertainty, but I think you’ve put it a better way. Accepting uncertainty makes the discomfort go away. To stretch the Zen thinking, accepting suffering makes suffering stop being painful.

    Thanks Laura.

  3. Sean, thanks for asking what I think are key questions at the end of your post. As for the first one, how to know what that feeling of uncertainty is telling you, one helpful exercise is to distinguish between two kinds of uncertainty. The first is a matter of what ISN’T known; the second is a matter of what CANNOT be known. Both are ubiquitous to philanthropy. There’s always more than could be known about the entire context that defines a philanthropic opportunity, and uncertainty is a characteristic of all social situations (imho).

    Problematizing and fixing uncertainty in the first case makes sense (“The fact that we don’t know X is a problem. Let’s do what needs to be done to fill in the missing information.”) Problematizing and fixing uncertainty in the second case doesn’t. That’s where the advice to accept or embrace it is well-placed. (“Not knowing X is a side-effect of what X is. Let’s accept that and decide where to go from here.”)

    In exploring your second question (“What can we learn from others who’ve been grappling with uncertainty longer than we have?”), I like theoretical physicist F David Peat’s suggestions that you can create (or look for, if analyzing and risk-assessing) certain conditions that encourage those positive outcomes. Here’s a link to a list of those conditions, and some additional background info:

  4. Jeff Mowatt says:


    In answer to your final question, psychology was very much an influence on the for profit model we describe as people-centered economics. It was I’m told, influenced by Maslow and Carl R Rogers, who proposed that given the chance people had the innate capacity to understand their issues, heal themselves, and become a healthy, functioning person.

    I’d just been reflecting that I was first drawn here a year ago by your slightly provocactive suggestion that social entprise caused the credit crisis, My aim was to convey the for profit approach which advocates for achievement measured in human progress rather than debt measured in abstract numbers. Now I understand that Tactical Philanthropy has itself adopted a for profit approach.

    Our own risk an uncertainty derives from working in an area in which organised crime is the main obstacle. Risk is physical as is taking a maverick position which is bound to draw flak. This is something still largely ignored by both philanthropy and social enterprise, i.e the counter influence of (anti)social capitalism where often human life is the commodity.


  5. Thanks Christine,
    Interestingly, Donald Rumsfeld has something to say on this issue:

    “There are known knowns. These are things we know that we know. There are known unknowns. That is to say, there are things that we know we don’t know. But there are also unknown unknowns. There are things we don’t know we don’t know.”

    It seems to me that “known unknowns” are the things you say we should work on knowing. But we must always remember that there are “unknown unknowns” and we must embrace the fact that we will always operate under conditions of “unknown unknowns”

  6. Sean, fun to chase these thoughts with you. Not surprisingly perhaps, no, Rumsfeld’s comment doesn’t address the point I was trying to make, which is that much of what is unknown CAN’T be known, and a whole different set of strategies is required for dealing with that subset of all unknown stuff — stuff that’s uncertain by definition.