Brain Insights: Uncertainty, Matt Hancock and the difference between prophets and leaders

On uncertainty, leaders and prophets: this blog is about leadership and uncertainty; it is not an endorsement of a political party. 


"The historian is a prophet looking backwards." 

Friedrich Von Schlegel,

What would you have done if you did not know what you know now? 


In dealing with uncertainty, do you judge people and their decisions fairly; do you judge as a leader in the moment or as a historian prophet? Paraphrasing the influential historian, R.G. Collingwood, the ignorant traveller marches along unaware of their surroundings, seeing nothing but trees and grass, the woodsman sees what lurks ahead, seeing the tiger in the grass.


You live, you learn, you change: you know more today than you did yesterday and yesterday you knew more then you did the day before; imagine how much you will know tomorrow. 

Think of a tough decision you have had to take in life, something that if you had your time again, you would make a different decision. Think again, would you really change your choice? 

If you answer yes, you are making the classic mistake of judging yourself through the healed Eye of Horus and you need to challenge your thinking, moving it out of the purple and into the blue.

The Healed Eye of Horus


Horus had a brother, Set, and between them, they ruled the skies of ancient Egypt. Horus and Set didn't get along, continually finding themselves in opposition to each other. Set was a storm god who revelled in disorder, turmoil, confusion and rage. Horus was the daytime sky and the light of order, which he watched over with his two eyes, the sun and the moon. As with all siblings in constant opposition, they fought. The legend of their epic fight tells us that Set lost his testicles, while Horus lost an eye. Toth, the creator god, restored Seth's sight, making it whole or healthy, creating the all-seeing eye.


Horus is the god of modern hindsight and, to the unaware, he causes more trouble than he's worth. However, let's start with Set and uncertainty.

Why do you dislike uncertainty so much?


You generally do not like uncertainty because what you don't know or understand is interpreted by the brain as dangerous. Your mind is always on, scanning your environment, cross-referencing signals it receives with your experiences and hard-wired survival programming to predict threat levels. Uncertainty is Set, bringing disorder, turmoil, confusion and rage, stimulating your freeze-fight-flight response. Uncertainty heightens your feeling of anxiety and stress, which impacts your overall feeling of wellbeing.


Would you feel more anxious if you had a 50% chance of receiving an electric shock or a 100% chance? According to 2016 research conducted by Rutledge and Planck at University College London, people are calmer when faced with the certainty of an electric shock. Conversely, people are likely to be more anxious or stressed when faced with the possibility of not receiving the shock because they are facing uncertainty.


"The most stressful scenario is when you really don't know. It's the uncertainty that makes us anxious. The same is likely to apply in many familiar situations, whether it's waiting for medical results or information on train delays."

Imagine being at a hotel and needing a taxi to get to an important meeting that is approximately 25 minutes away by car and you have 45 minutes until the meeting starts. You call the local taxi company and find out that a driver will be with you in 10-to-20 minutes. What level of anxiety will you experience during the uncertainty of that wait? If only someone could develop an app that would bring you certainty; an app that tracked the taxi and told you exactly what time it is arriving in real-time. Is it any wonder that Uber is so popular?


Shocking control!


The human aversion to uncertainty includes being left alone with your mind, where you struggle to control your thoughts, to the extent that some people will choose an electric shock rather than spend time with themselves.


The University of Virginia recruited hundreds of volunteers, men and women, for a ground-breaking experiment where volunteers would spend 15 minutes in a lab room; the only thing available to them was a button that they could use to give themselves an electric shock. When left alone with your thoughts for 15 minutes, would you choose to shock yourself to regain control of your mind because 67% of men and 25% of women in the Virginia study decided to shock themselves? 


The need for certainty is such that you can fool your future self into thinking you knew something all along, or that others have made poor decisions because they are incompetent leaders. The reality is that you are looking at the world through the healed eye of Horus. To understand the world, to make better sense of what is happening or has happened, you need to shut your eyes and go back in time. You need to unlearn.

Do you listen to the prophet or the leader


If you watched journalists grilling leaders on the handling of the COVID-19 crisis, you would have born witness to a battle between leaders and historian-prophets who leak fear of uncertainty in the present.


Beyond demanding certainty where there is none, the journalist is the historian turned prophet who, armed today with the healed eye of Horus, interrogates leadership decisions taken in a different time and place. It is like asking Set and Horus in knowing what they know now - remember, they lost testicles and an eye between them - would they have done things differently?

Scene 1: in search of certainty


Matt Hancock, Secretary of State for Health and Social Care in the UK, was interviewed by the BBC about a goal he set at a UK government briefing the night before. The goal was for the UK to carry out 100,000 COVID-19 tests/day within 30 days, rising from a current state of 10,000/day. 

The five points in Mr Hancock's plan were as follows:


  • Swab tests – to check if people already have the virus – in labs run by Public Health England

  • Using commercial partners such as universities and private businesses like Amazon and Boots to do more swab testing

  • Introducing antibody blood tests to check whether people have had the virus

  • Surveillance to determine the rate of infection and how it is spreading across the country

  • Building a British diagnostics industry, with help from pharmaceutical giants


Matt Hancock said that the UK wanted to buy 17.5 million antibody tests, "subject to them working". He added that the government was working with nine companies who have offered the blood tests – but he added "they have got to work" and the government will not allow them to be rolled out if they are not effective. (www.bbc.co.uk)


Matt talked about the target of 100,000/day being a goal for the whole system, where changes would need to be made across the system – for example, smaller pharmaceutical diagnostic companies being included in the discussion. Matt was speaking about marginal gains, which is a valid approach when working in a complex environment.


However, his explanation was immediately picked up on by the interviewer as a sign of weakness; there was no one single definitive action and, therefore, the plan seemed ambiguous. Without such certainty, the program must be waffle.


The interviewer went on to ask for a commitment that the 100,000 per day goal would be achieved – in other words, put your neck on the line Mr Hancock and guarantee the outcome; give us certainty! 


Matt Hancock naturally deflected to the focus on the target, a swarming of Talent, Attitudes, Knowledge, Experience and Skills around a pressurised opportunity. A perfectly reasonable response to complexity - Set's volatile world of uncertainty, disorder, turmoil and ambiguity - because where there is no certainty what he knows today will change, and he cannot guarantee the outcome.

Scene 2: The prophet asks would you do things differently?


Hindsight, the healed eye of Horus, allows prophets to make better decisions based on possessing a greater understanding of the whole, so what stopped the leader making a better decision in the first place?


The second strand of the challenge by the BBC interviewer was about Lessons Learned. Why were smaller diagnostic companies only being engaged now; why were they not engaged earlier in the crisis? The interviewer went on to challenge whether the government had made mistakes and with hindsight would they have brought these companies earlier? Matt Hancock said, no, and, as a leader, I applaud him.


The premise for the question is silly: if I gave you more data, information and knowledge that significantly impacts your ability to attain your goal, would you take a different approach to the one you have already chosen? Of course, you would. However, without this data, information and knowledge, you wouldn't. Therefore, you would not have changed your decision at the time. 


The scientific evidence provided to the UK government, coupled with industry claims around testing capability, brought decision-makers at that moment in time to make a decision. The government briefings then stated that the UK government had purchased millions of testing kits, BUT scientists were still verifying their validity. Is this a wrong decision based on the evidence? Prophets will say, yes. Because if government officials had possessed foresight, they would have known that the pharmaceutical diagnostic companies had overstated their testing claims and two weeks later they would not have appeared on BBC Breakfast with egg on their face.


Matt Hancock was, therefore, right; the government would not have taken a different decision at the time. Those interested in complexity theory may argue for weak signal detection here, but the government swarmed the requisite Talent, Attitudes, Knowledge, Experience and Skills (TAKES) around an emergent pressurised challenge. The decision at the time appeared logical based on the available data, information and knowledge. Historians turned prophets will challenge the leaders, but it is easy to contest when looking through the healed eye of Horus.

Scene 3: why you don't just copy what others have done?


Uncertainty brings a search for answers, so why don't we copy what someone else has done because we can then predict the outcome?


Have you ever browsed a bookshop in an airport? If you have, you will have seen the plethora of success books such as How to Get RichMillionaire success habits or The Presentation Secrets of Steve Jobs. Every success story you read involves an infinite amount of variables that you cannot replicate. Your life, your TAKES, are not the same as these successful people. You cannot replicate what they did because you are not them. These stories are lovely case studies, but that's all they are. Can you learn from them? Absolutely, but there are critical limitations that you need to consider; to begin with, do you have the requisite talent, attitudes, knowledge, experience and skills to apply the learning in your environment?


Prophets love a good case study, but leaders know that emergence means that the more you probe the system, the more system connections and connectivity are revealed to you. As your understanding of the whole improves (sensemaking), so does your decision-making capability. 


Case studies give the illusion of certainty. If a given strategy was successful in one context, then why can't you replicate it in yours? The assumption being that system dynamics (e.g. starting conditions such as beliefs, values, standards and behaviours) are constant, and the actions in one system will have the same effect on another system. 


You can see this assumption playing out in the debate around why world leaders have not adopted the South Korean approach to the COVID-19 outbreak. Quite simply, the system dynamics are not the same, and, therefore, the only value of a case study is in the process of learning that took place. Still, even here, patterns are constrained by the available data, information and knowledge available to the leader.


"Koreans are super good at making things convenient for people – we don't have any patience," he says. "South Korea is one of the most wired countries in the world, where everybody uses cell phones for just about everything, and [the government] was able to use our cell phones to not only track but send warnings, like 'watch out, there's a Covid-19 patient in your vicinity.'"

Dynamic difference 1 (www.wired.co.uk)


Korean healthcare, a highly regulated, efficient single payer system, is also prepared to face epidemics. The country failed to contain the 2015 outbreak of Middle East respiratory syndrome (MERS), recording 186 cases and 38 deaths, more than anywhere outside the Middle East. After the WHO excoriated Korea's response, the country overhauled their response to respiratory infections, fast-tracking the production of test kits and equipping hospitals with infection control units and negative pressure rooms.


Dynamic difference 2 (www.wired.co.uk)


The Korean population, shaken by the incident, are also more likely to wash their hands, stay at home and get tested if requested to. "Testing like this has been very successful with dealing with HIV, for example, to prevent its spread and onward transmission," says Mina. "There were large campaigns to test people to see if they know their status, and then to act appropriately."


Dynamic difference 3 (www.wired.co.uk)


So on the one hand, our leaders should replicate the South Korean approach, and on the other, the argument is that the starting conditions (governing principles of the system) are different. 


Understanding these differences, can we reasonably expect leaders in other countries to take the same approach? Because, if you cannot, then, going back to Collingwood, are those that call for such actions an ignorant traveller seeing trees and grass, as opposed to the woodsman who sees the tiger?

What would you have done if you did not know what you know now?


Before you rush to judge leadership decisions taken by you or your teams, remember the healed eye of Horus and ask yourself, what would I have done if I did not know what I know now?

Insights: be aware of the opportuities created by your limitations


As a leader or manager, you need to be aware of the skills you need to motivate and develop a high-performing team.


To help, we have designed an Insight Space to help discover and develop opportunities in your skillset.

We also show you how to use awareness and understanding of uncertainty & hindsight to improve engagement, productivity, engagement, wellbeing and creativity as part of our Good Workshops programme. Get in touch if you would like to know more.

Dr David Griffiths & Julie Hayward

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