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E216 | Uncertainty: The Portal to Possibility with Nathan and Susannah Furr

How do you deal with uncertainty? Do you avoid it at all costs or do you embrace the unknown excitedly?

To discuss the upside of uncertainty is husband and wife team, Nathan and Susannah Furr, authors of The Upside of Uncertainty. 

As the Professor of Strategy and Innovation at INSEAD, and with a PhD from Stanford, Nathan is an expert in innovation and technology strategy. Susannah is an entrepreneur, designer, artist, and contrarian who’s recently started a bio-intensive garden as part of a ‘hope accelerator’ in Normandy, France. 

On this episode of Mind Your F**king Business Podcast, Nathan and Susannah share their experiences of tackling uncertainty, and discuss how you can improve and train your risk tolerance and seek the upside of uncertainty. And in doing so, how we can then impact organisations. 

Download and listen to learn more. 

On today’s podcast:

  • The portal to possibility 
  • Uncertainty balances
  • How do you teach uncertainty?
  • Regret minimisation decision making
  • Driving innovation inside businesses 


The Upside of Uncertainty with Nathan and Susannah Furr

Nathan and Susannah Furr are the husband and wife team behind the newly released book, The Upside of Uncertainty. Susannah is an entrepreneur, designer, artist and contrarian. She’s got a clothing line inspired by the embroidery that Dutch women painstakingly put on their uniforms, the details of which are often invisible to everybody but the wearer. She’s recently started a bio-intensive garden as part of a hope accelerator in Normandy. 

Nathan is the professor of Strategy and Innovation at INSEAD in Paris. He’s an expert in innovation and technology strategy. He’s got a PhD from Stanford, and some prior bestsellers under his belt including The Innovator’s Method; Leading Transformation; and Innovation Capital

Together they wrote The Upside of Uncertainty, because Nathan has spent his academic life talking to organisations and helping organisations improve innovation and handle risk. And Susannah is an entrepreneur. And one definition of entrepreneurship is that entrepreneurs have a higher risk tolerance than those who are just employees. 

And so the book is a field guide – their voyage of discovery. It teaches the reader how as an individual you can improve and train your risk tolerance and seek the uncertainty and seek the upside of uncertainty. And in doing so, how as individuals we can then impact organisations. 

Innovators and uncertainty

“I’ve been interviewing innovators for the last 20 years. And one thing you see right away is that we admire the new things they did, the new businesses, the opportunities, the change, the transformation, we love those things. But what we forget is that all those innovators had to first go through some really significant uncertainty to get to the thing we all admire.” – Nathan.

So how do you build the courage to step into the unknown? What do innovators have to learn before they start? And how do you learn to get better at taking risks?

“For me, I was saying all along, Nathan, we’re doing uncertainty. I was finding that everything we really cared about in our lives were things when we took risks, when we’d gone into the unknown and then thrived and loved where we were. And so I wanted to add that human element to the book.” – Susannah.

The portal to possibility 

Having spent years speaking to and researching uncertainty, it was apparent to Nathan that people can get better at approaching uncertainty. But he found the answers to ‘how’ really unsatisfying. 

So, alongside Susannah, he wanted to develop practical tools that would allow him, and others, to discover a more positive relationship with uncertainty. 

Together they found 30+ tools for navigating uncertainty, and these fall into four categories:

  1. Reframe – this means reframing the idea of something from fear to what’s the possibility here? 
  2. Prime, or prepare for uncertainty –  these are things you can do in advance to be more calm when uncertainty happens, or when you step into it.
  3. Do – there’s ways to take action that lead to a greater probability of a positive outcome or an outcome you would like in uncertainty.
  4. Sustain – how do you sustain yourself to the challenging emotions you will face with uncertainty.

Uncertainty balances

“One thing we noticed that was really curious is, when you talk to [innovators] about uncertainty, they say some pretty provocative things like I love uncertainty, or I eat uncertainty for breakfast.”

When questioned, Nathan discovered that people who embraced uncertainty didn’t fear it, because they had put into place things to balance out the uncertainties elsewhere in their lives. For example, the founder of married his high school sweetheart. Or the person who travels the world and always carries their breakfast with them so they always eat the same thing which gives them comfort. 

“We call them uncertainty balancers. And it’s habits, routines, rituals, activities, relationships, even humour, that creates certainty in parts of your life that allow you to face the uncertainty.”

Uncertainty balancers, says Susannah, allow you to turn the temperature down. It’s about controlling the things that are in your reach – think of Steve Jobs always wearing the same black jumper, everyday. 

How do you teach uncertainty?

Having discovered the tools around navigating something so ethereal, Nathan and Susannah then had to figure out how to teach uncertainty. 

“The tools are meant to encourage every single person who’s been sitting on the sidelines to rally and say no, actually, uncertainty is something I can get better at. And the tools can be implemented starting right now.”

Everything in our lives is a function of genes, experience and learning, says Nathan. While some people do come with a genetic disposition to be a little more comfortable with uncertainty, that’s not the only thing that allows innovators to strive forward. Being around people who can model how to handle uncertainty can also help change your comfort level. As can learning how to do it better. 

“There’s always been uncertainty [in the world], there’s a lot of evidence that uncertainty has increased. But we’re proposing you need that competence in this world. And so we need to get serious about developing [uncertainty] because we could be better at it.”

It’s important to understand, says Nathan, that we are all wired by evolution to be afraid of uncertainty. But we don’t live in a world where everything is out to eat us anymore. Yet our old evolutionary wiring is making us choose comfort over uncertainty out of unnecessary fear.

The reframing tool

It’s so powerful, says Susannah, to change your view of ‘uncertainty is bad and to be avoided at all costs’ to one of, ‘wow, uncertainty is just the doorway to possibility and I can get better at it’. 

And reframing starts by being curious and asking yourself: is there anything in my life that I love and adore and cherish that didn’t have uncertainty at some point along the way to making it part of my life?

Reframing tools, says Nathan, are all about finding ways to embrace uncertainty, to see it as possibility, and to start expanding the opportunities out there.

Regret minimisation decision making

There’s two kinds of uncertainty that they address in this book. One is the uncertainties you choose to face e.g. you have the choice to start a new venture, to take a new job, to travel somewhere new. This requires you to choose whether you’re going to step into the unknown, or whether you’re going to stay in the certain. 

The other category is when uncertainty happens to you e.g. you didn’t choose it, for example, the pandemic, and now you’ve got to face all different possibilities and outcomes of the uncertainty. 

How do you deal with these? One way, says Nathan, is to follow Jeff Bezos’ advice and use regret minimisation decision making. 

What does that mean?

Take the example of having to make a common decision such as – I have a good situation, why would I change it for a situation that is at best, tolerable? 

Jeff Bezos says when making these types of decisions he asks himself – if I project myself out to age 80, what will I regret? Will I regret trying and failing? No, you will regret having never tried. 

“My grandmother said the way that parents teach their children to live their dreams is by the parents living their dreams. And that was like that regret minimisation because for me, it helped clarify I will regret not doing this.” – Nathan.

Playing an infinite game

For Susannah, her favourite tool is looking at uncertainty through the lens of playing an infinite game. 

“Instead of playing the finite game where we’re looking at the rules, roles and boundaries as fixed and that the purpose of life is to win everything. What if we tried on the lens of playing an infinite game, which is to keep playing the game and play for the love of the game.”

Driving innovation inside businesses 

Innovation often gets stuck and does not happen, says Nathan, because a lot of times leaders are too afraid of doing something new. 

They say they want to take a risk, but when the moment comes, they shut it down. Which is ironic, given that uncertainty is the moat that protects something new. If there were no risk or uncertainty, your competitors would have grabbed it already, says Susannah.

“We believe organisations need to develop this competence, to navigate this world of uncertainty and it starts at an individual level. A leader who doesn’t have this will have a really hard time because what they’ll do is they’ll sow panic and distress throughout the organisation.”

You have to remember that what is happening to you is happening to you, says Nathan. And this is true at an individual level, at a CEO level, at a team level. You got dealt a hand of cards, so what are you going to do? 

You can spend your time creating a lot of worry and anxiety around whatever the uncertainty is, says Susannah, or you can say – what’s the most positive thing that can happen? What’s the best possibility we could pull out of this situation? 

“That’s really what all the tools and The Upside of Uncertainty is about. It’s helping us say, okay, either I need to step into the unknown to reinvent or create possibility for myself or my company, or I got dealt a nasty hand of cards. Now what?”

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