Understanding Uncertainty’s impact on Learning.

In Commitment, Olav and I wrote that the “rational” order of preference is:

  1. Right
  2. Uncertain
  3. Wrong

We also wrote that the observed preference for most people is:

  1. Right
  2. Wrong
  3. Uncertain

People would prefer to be wrong than uncertain. We know this because they make commitments earlier than they should, and destroy options unnecessarily. A preference for uncertainty would result in more learning. A preference for learning would be an advantage within a “Community of Need”. An aversion to uncertainty is an advantage in a “Community of Solutions” as you can be more compelling and forceful in your argument about a solution. You can be more certain.

We learn something new when we perceive it has value for us.


It is stressful to be aware of things that are valuable that we do not know. If we crave certainty, we ignore the value of these things. We can express value using this formula:


We can considering this value in Kolb’s “Circle of Learning” ( a.k.a. Feature Injection’s “Break the Model” ).


“Spot the value” means we spot an observation, Ix ,such that the value Vx, calculated using our value model

V = F ( Io … In, Ix )

is different to the value observed. In effect, we have an arbitrage situation. The difference between the observed value and the calculated value are different. We should act accordingly, learning and applying the new idea.

This seems fairly straight forward. It becomes tricky because our value function F ( Io … In ) acts as a filter on our perception of reality. The more certain we are, the less likely we are to differences between two things that reveal a problem with our value function. The more we are comfortable with uncertainty, the more like we are to identify differences.

This is very important to understand the impact of uncertainty on learning. If we are certain, we will not notice the problems. Its not a case of we ignore then, we simply will not perceive them as important. In fact, its when we notice these observations that do not fit our model that we are at danger of shifting from “Obvious” where we are certain, to “Chaos” where we see lots of observations that do not fit our model and the model effectively collapses as it is no longer of use.

Knowledge Options

Learning new things takes a lot of effort. Twenty hours of concentrated practiced has been suggested as a minimum to become barely sufficient in a subject. More effort is required to become proficient and significant effort is required to master a subject. “Community of Solutions” value masters of a subject. They will often be proficient to a level where they can make a tool work even though it is not a natural fit for the context. People in a “Community of Needs” need to understand the value of an idea, the context in which it is best applied. They also need knowledge options. A knowledge option involves knowing the value of an idea and having an option to acquire proficiency in the skill within a certain timescale. You can learn more about knowledge options in the “The Lazy Learner” talk. The most powerful option is to be a member in many “Community of Needs” with access to practitioners who can guide and help you learn quickly.

Organisations hiring Agile Coaches should always hire people from the “Community of Needs”. Trainers can come from either community. If you hire a coach from the “Community of Solutions”, they will attempt to solve your problem with their favourite solution, regardless of whether it is the best solution. They will attempt to demonstrate it will work in all contexts, even if there is a better tool for some of those contexts.

And here in lies the tragedy of the situation. Organisations attempting an Agile Transformation are seeking certainty. Their value model does not allow they to value a coach using option thinking, i.e. how many knowledge options they have to  acquire skills to solve a problem. Instead they value coaches based on their expertise and their popularity. Until Organisations learn to value coaches properly, they will continue to suffer failures in their transformations.

About theitriskmanager

Currently an “engineering performance coach” because “transformation” and “Agile” are now toxic. In the past, “Transformation lead”, “Agile Coach”, “Programme Manager”, “Project Manager”, “Business Analyst”, and “Developer”. Did some stuff with the Agile Community. Put the “Given” into “Given-When-Then”. Discovered “Real Options” View all posts by theitriskmanager

3 responses to “Understanding Uncertainty’s impact on Learning.

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