Quantum physics has had a profound impact on our understanding of science by challenging the orderly, predictable Newtonian view of the world. Under a Newtonian view of the world, if you had enough computing power and accurately understood the laws of physics, one could literally predict the future in its entirety through calculation. Quantum physics changed all that, first through the insight that photons could be both particles and waves and then by the more troubling recognition that the future is not quite as stable as we once believed. In simplest terms, quantum physics argues that by observing particles, we change their very nature and, by extension, the future. In perhaps the most famous quantum experiment, researchers noted that when two photons are emitted from a source, observing the one photon changed the nature of the other photon at a speed faster than light. To help others understand this, Schrodinger framed a famous example in which a cat is inside a box with a vial of poison that has a 50% chance of breaking and killing the cat. In a Newtonian world, the vial is either broken or not and the cat is either alive or dead. In a quantum world, both realities co-exist until you open the box, thus the cat is both alive and dead, literally, until the moment of observation (at first blush this all seems rather fantastic but give the book, Schrdinger's Cat a brief read to find out how important these things are in our physical world). Although it may seem like science fiction, the fact that our actions can change the future in some profound way gives us a clue about how to nurture innovation.

 

By their very nature, organizations operate very much in a Newtonian world with a focus on eliminating risk and uncertainty so that they can capture the value in known opportunities. In many ways, we could say the same thing for most individuals as all the evidence from psychology suggests that we much prefer a known event to an unknown event, even if we could prosper from the unknown event. Such a world view has its benefits. If we are operating in the "known" then taking a Newtonian view could get you the best outcome. But if you are trying to innovation, a Newtonian view might just be your downfall because when you try to create value through innovation, you are no longer operating in the "known." Instead you are operating in a more quantum world where uncertainty is actually the source from which new and unexpected innovations and growth can emerge. In other words, unlike a Newtonian world where if we pull the right levers, the laws of physics will yield an innovation, instead, like the crazy cat experiment, our very actions will shape what emerges. Thus if we want to innovate, we actually have to learn to tolerate and even embrace uncertainty while we wait for a "quantum event" to emerge. On the surface this may sound crazy, but ask any innovator and you will find out, they never know the end from the beginning. Instead they take actions to create a quantum event.

 

For us ordinary humans, this can be tough. Although uncertainty may feel like a bad thing, it is actually a good thing, within limits. So, contrary to habit, managers and entrepreneurs need to find a way to nurture uncertainty in order to create real breakthroughs while at the same time containing it so that it doesn't wreak havoc on the rest of the organization or their lives. Said another way, innovators have to find a way to respect and embrace uncertainty. Respecting uncertainty means recognizing the good that can come from uncertainty, fostering the uncertainty in a specific place and time in the organization (during which you temporarily sustain disbelief, respecting that something good could emerge), and then thoughtfully containing the uncertainty to make it tolerable. Much like a greenhouse that fosters growth but has boundaries and borders, employing the right tactics to embrace and respect uncertainty can create the fertile ground required for innovation to occur.

 

In organizations these might include things such as time boxing (constraining the tolerance of uncertainty to a specific, short time frame in a project), cut offs (defining the "exit" rules in advance to change or exit unproductive uncertainty and then letting uncertainty flourish until the rules kick in), hybrids (designing half-way steps to manage uncertainty, such as working two jobs at once to understand which one you like best); innovation time (structured time to innovate, complemented by channels to encourage the use of innovation time such as innovation jams or common activities that draw people together to innovate); brain-load reduction (tactics that reduce the uncertainty elsewhere in an innovator's life, such as free laundry or housekeeping); blank checks (programs that provide corporate innovators limited time and resources to foster change with a free hand, such as Mondelez International's blank checks for Oreo in China that allowed them to turn around the failing China entry), innovation labs (that are built to foster uncertain ideas) or small loss funds (innovation funds distributed in small amounts to explore an uncertainty with the expectation that they might be lost).

 

These represent just a few ideas gathered from my research, but ultimately you are attempting to find a mechanism to respect and embrace the uncertainty. In your personal life, as you face difficult decisions, consider finding ways to allow the uncertain to unfold. If you leave me a comment, I'll post a second time and tell you the strategies individuals use to manage uncertainty. In fact, I would argue we all need a personal manual to navigate these uncertain times. If this sounds interesting, please leave me a comment or send me a direct message to @nathan_furr and I'll discuss this topic more. Personally I'm fascinated to write about the tools we can use to manage uncertainty in our careers. Let me know if you are interested.