How Might We Increase Comfort as We Navigate Uncertainty?

Posted by Aaron Sklar



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.

Uncertainty can be a huge challenge for social enterprises and their donors, which are caught up in a culture that commonly develops detailed five-year plans to win funding. These plans lay out activities in advance, and organizations tend not to deviate from them, even if there are findings along the way that identify potentially more effective directions. Below, we suggest four approaches to help organizations increase their level of comfort while making decisions in the face of uncertainty.

Determine what to measure early on. Thinking through measures in advance will help the team recognize quickly whether the work is on track or not. For example in a recent collaboration aimed at reducing unplanned pregnancies, IDEO and The National Campaign decided at the outset that the success of the work would hinge on birth control adherence.

Learn by doing. Try things out on a small scale using prototypes and pilot studies to mitigate risk. In the birth control adherence example, the team tried out their early ideas using mobile phone text prompts and quickly got feedback from women on the effectiveness of the concepts. The feedback informed the next iteration of concepts as well as shifted the method of collecting feedback in the next rounds to include more interactions between the participants.

Let indicators lead the way
. Often it takes years to realize the full impact of an innovation. In the meantime, look for clues to demonstrate whether the work is heading in the right direction. An example of this is the way IDEO is tracking the impact of the Human Centered Design toolkit. We're using Google Analytics and Twitter buzz to tell us if we've developed something that people find interesting. Before we have the stories of real impact in the world, we can know that people are excited about it (which encourages us to keep going), and we can start documenting case studies about the toolkit.

Refine what you are measuring as you learn more. Iteration is the cornerstone of concept generation and is regrettably absent from the typical evaluation mindset. As evaluation progresses, we should be on the lookout for unintended consequences (both positive and negative) and start to incorporate them into our measure as they reveal themselves. In the example of the toolkit, which is available free online, we initially only counted download statistics.  As we learn more about the different audiences for the toolkit, we are able to go a step further by refining our evaluation measures accordingly.

Navigating uncertainty can be both a challenge and a thrill. We'd love to hear from those of you who are engaged in evaluation in this way. Please join the conversation by commenting below.


  • What are great examples of navigating uncertainty?

  • What methods do you recommend for approaching evaluation of new-to-the-world ideas?

  • Are there certain contexts that are more amenable to uncertainty?


Guest Blogger Aaron Sklar leads IDEO's initiative in measuring social impact. A response from Sean Stannard-Stockton of Tactical Philanthropy Advisors will appear in the next few days.