The Uncertainty Mindset & the Future of Work

Laetitia@Work #26

Hi everyone,

As this year continues to generate fresh disasters and difficulties across the globe, and forces many of us to adapt to a fast-changing environment, the idea that we need to develop an “uncertainty mindset” is compelling. What does it mean for an individual and an organisation to develop such a mindset? What does it imply for our ways of working? That’s the theme of a recently published book by Vaughn Tan, a professor of strategy (and ex-Googler), titled The Uncertainty Mindset

For close to a decade, Tan watched closely how a group of highly innovative R&D food labs across the world of high-end cuisine approached innovation. He got to know them and work with them so as to understand how they organised their work collectively, how they dealt with pressure and uncertainty. His book offers “innovation insights from the frontiers of food” for anyone who’s interested. 

white mouse on white table

Once I heard such a book had been written, I immediately purchased it and read it. A book that is at once about the world of high-end cuisine and the “uncertainty mindset” in the new work paradigm, how could I not? I love books and films that deal with chefs in high-end restaurants, and the stressful, merciless organisation of work in “kitchen underbellies”. The masterpiece of the genre is Anthony Bourdain’s Kitchen Confidential (2000) which inspired the film Ratatouille (yes, that’s why there’s a picture of a rat to illustrate this newsletter).

Interestingly, the world of high-end cuisine underwent a paradigm shift that is full of useful lessons for many people and the world of work in general. What happened in high-end cuisine is this: there was a shift from efficiency as the main virtue to innovation. As we’re undergoing a global shift from the Fordist paradigm that required reliability and standardisation to a digital paradigm that requires innovation and personalisation, Tan’s innovation insights seem particularly relevant. In this newsletter, I’d like to discuss some of these insights.

What happened to high-end cuisine

The hardest thing about running a restaurant is that you have to deal with high overhead costs, low margins and fickle customers all at the same time. Running a restaurant is very hard. Every year, many restaurants go bankrupt. This year of course will be remembered as a restaurant apocalypse. In some cities, like New York City, as many as one in three restaurants won’t survive 2020 (many have already closed for good). But let’s not go into the consequences of the pandemic and focus instead on what happened before.

It used to be that traditional restaurants focused on the quality of their execution. To survive they had to work hard to avoid waste and be as efficient as possible. “For high-end restaurants to become efficient and consistent at producing complex dishes, they have traditionally depended, like factories all do, on extensive documentation, intense specialization, and clear hierarchies,” writes Tan. If that sounds familiar it’s because it’s true of every industrial organisation in the Fordist age. In that paradigm, your success depends on how efficient you can be, and to be efficient you need repeatable processes based on people having clearly-defined, very specialised roles.

That’s why traditional restaurants rely on rigidly structured division of labour, with a staff spread across specialised stations where they can hone their craft and become super efficient at doing one thing (or a couple of things). Not only must they be efficient, they must also be consistent, i.e. make sure they produce stable, reliable quality that customers can depend on. “Consistency is essential for a restaurant to win repeat custom; efficiency is essential for it to survive.”

In that context, innovation is necessarily the enemy. You can’t be efficient and consistent if you innovate. In order to innovate, you have to waste resources, and you have to teach people to do new things from scratch, which they can’t immediately be efficient at. 

But the world of high-end cuisine has undergone a profound paradigm shift since the early 2000s, pushed by food bloggers, social networks and food research pioneers. Suddenly there was a premium for being innovative and changing the menu constantly. Suddenly you had to be a lot more creative to provide passionate aficionados with an unforgettable Gesamtkunstwerk (one of my favourite German words: it means a “total work of art” or an “all-embracing art form”). 

The Gesamtkunstwerk includes the dishes themselves, but also how they look, the story they tell and the story they are packaged in, the music they create. The way you experience the work of art is affected by the environment in which you experience it, the objects you touch, etc. So innovation in high-end cuisine encompasses everything! It requires not only a deep knowledge of ingredients, cooking techniques, chemistry, biology, food history and culture, but also creativity about storytelling, choosing furniture, and mastering photography.

Uncertainty, innovation and the organisation of work

As Tan describes at length the workings of R&D labs such as ThinkFoodGroup, the Fat Duck Experimental Kitchen, the Cooking Lab or Noma, we understand that high-end cuisine today comes with profound uncertainty. And to understand uncertainty, you must understand what it’s not. Uncertainty, Tan insists, is different from risk. It’s the difference between known unknowns which you can plan for and unknown unknowns which no amount of planning can help you with.

There is a fundamental difference between the two that must be understood (...) The work risk means that the exact future that will result is unknown, but the different possible futures are knowable in a way that allows you to plan by calculating how likely different possible futures are and taking clearly sensible actions based on those calculations. (...) True uncertainty is uncertainty that cannot be measured and cannot be eliminated using strategies chosen based on likelihoods of outcomes. (...) The existential threat from true uncertainty can undoubtedly be terrifying, but it also represents opportunity for innovation. Where the future is uncertain, people and organizations have to influence what it becomes.

Naturally it has direct implications on how work must be organised. In a world of true uncertainty, division of labour and scientific management are useless. You need continually adaptive, flexible teams with the uncertainty mindset, who can tackle new challenges and come up with creative ideas. They must work together like a hive but also improvise together like a jazz band. This requires at least three things:

  • Individual roles are regarded as “provisional, unstable, and open to change”, as opposed to the fixed and clearly-defined roles you see in corporations that provide precise job descriptions. It’s a view of roles that reminds of the world of craftsmanship.

  • There’s a lot of time spent “micro-testing” one another to get to know the strengths of individual team members. “Instead of isolating teaching and learning in formal training programs, these teams spread it across almost every piece of work each member did. Microlearning and microteaching happened all the time in the course of daily work.”

  • Goals need to be “open-ended” so as not to prevent innovation and leave creative people enough room to find something really new. Clearly defined goals are the stuff of traditional, industrial organisations. 

Motivation and desperation by design

Uncertainty is profoundly uncomfortable. And thriving in an uncertain world comes with a lot of pain, in particular emotional pain. It basically means that you can never be “good” at something because if you’re good at something, it means you’ve been complacent (and not ambitious enough). It’s exhausting! Few people will deliberately seek the uncomfortable. 

The teams described by Tan take on huge challenges, like opening a pop-up restaurant in a far-away country with different ingredients and food culture, or opening three restaurants at once in a different city, or organising a high-end cuisine symposium when you’ve never organised such an event before, that nobody in their right mind would want to take on. How do you motivate people to take on challenges that will cause huge stress, emotional pain and acute discomfort? 

Of course there’s a question of personality. Some people like adrenaline more than others while some people dislike routine more than others. The world of high-end cuisine (like all the organisations that require innovation) attracts certain types of people. Kitchens attract certain types of people, as Anthony Bourdain beautifully showed in his Kitchen Confidential

But beyond personality, there is what Tan calls “desperation by design”. “These projects created desperation that was productive in the sense that it pushed teams and their members into the discomfort zone that lay just beyond the limits of their ability.” For Tan, to find success, you need to artificially create “desperation by design”.

First you must accept a project that is (slightly) beyond your ability. It’s a fine line because if it’s too much beyond your or your team’s ability, it won’t work. Second, there must be a real risk that it might fail and damage your reputation. And third, you must irrevocably commit to the project (with a public announcement or by spending a lot of money, for example). “True desperation only emerges when these three conditions exist”.

Ambition and humility at the same time

Desperation projects require some form of folie des grandeurs. It requires you imagining doing something that’s beyond your current abilities. One could say it requires a little bit of arrogance. (Is that why there are so few women in those worlds? Sadly women are less often encouraged to display any form of arrogance and folie des grandeurs). 

But at the same time it calls for absolute humility. To work well with a team at the highest level you must know and admire each of its members, you must have incredible listening skills, and you must be humble enough to know when you need help. You must understand the most subtle cues, and be sensitive to the smallest changes in your environment. You must be open enough to receive information. 

The level of open-mindedness that makes it possible to generate serendipity and magic requires absolute humility and curiosity. What makes these teams so innovative and creative is that they are curious about other cultures, people, disciplines, and ways of seeing the world. It is often in the intersection between different cultures that magic happens. Tan offers this beautiful quote (by a chef): “When we go away, we’re forced to learn all these new things, we become more sensitive. Now we can see a carrot in a different way because we have been in different places.” 🥕

Innovation requires the paradoxical ability to be simultaneously creative and non-delusional about the world; to see what’s actually there but also to actively imagine how that shapes the range of meaningful, not-yet-existent, possible outcomes. (...) Innovation is inherently truly uncertain. (...) The lived reality of innovation work is that it is therefore messy and chaotic, filled with ambiguity and friction. Innovation arises out of creative dissonance between different world views, different domains of work, and different ideas of value.

👉 For more on the subject of the uncertainty mindset and the future of work, read my previous newsletter titled “Navigating across cultures and getting ready for the future of work”.

I wrote a piece for the Institut Montaigne about working for home in France. The phenomenon is probably underestimated, but it’s also probably a lot fewer workers concerned than in the North of Europe: Ce qui se cache derrière les chiffres du télétravail en France 🇫🇷

Nicolas and I are developing Nouveau départ 🇫🇷 with increasing passion 🔥 We’ve recorded new podcasts, including one about what’s happening in India 🇮🇳 If you haven’t subscribed yet, give it a try!

For Welcome to the Jungle, I’ve just finished writing an ebook about remote work and inclusion. Remote work comes with threats and opportunities when it comes to inclusion. Stay tuned! I’ll let you know when it’s online.

🌉 Last but not least, I’m launching a new podcast in English 🇬🇧 🇩🇪 🇫🇷 🇪🇸 It’s a podcast and platform designed to “build bridges” across cultures in fragmented Europe. “Fragmentation is synonymous with diversity, and it should be our strength!”

👉 Subscribe to Building Bridges 🎙️

I’ve designed Building Bridges to try and remedy that problem [of fragmentation]. This is the English-speaking branch of a broader platform—one in which I (and, soon, others) will interview prominent global thinkers in their native language on a podcast, turn the audio file into a transcript, translate that transcript into as many European languages as possible, and distribute the translated versions across a syndication network covering as large a part of the continent as possible.


  • 💥 The 'serendipity mindset': how to make your own luck, Sharon Walker, The Guardian, September 2020: “Cultivating serendipity is first and foremost about looking at the world with open eyes and seeing opportunities others don’t. It’s not just about being in the right place at the right time and having something happen to us (blind luck), but rather a process in which we can be actively involved.”

  • 🇺🇸 The Neglect of Latino Voters, Christian Paz, The Atlantic, September 2020: “as campaigning for the general election ramps up, another casualty of the virus’s relentless attack is becoming clear: The pandemic may stunt Latino political power. On top of lackluster outreach from the presidential candidates, COVID-19 may depress voter interest in an election that seems disconnected from many communities’ dire situations, even as Latinos become the country’s largest minority voting bloc, with the potential to deliver a massive electoral bounty to whichever party mobilizes them.”

  • 🇩🇪 Germany's Economy Is Sicker Than You Think, Andreas Kluth, Bloomberg, September 2020: “The fear among many German economists is that the combination of these policies will create “zombie companies” — firms that should really die and exit the market because of problems unrelated to the pandemic, but that are instead kept alive artificially. An estimated 550,000 firms could already be zombies, according to one estimate, and this could grow to perhaps 800,000 next year. The even deeper fear is that this zombification eventually infects even healthy firms and removes the pressure for them to restructure.”

I look forward to your messages. See you in two weeks! 💌