UCL School of Management

5 August 2020

The Uncertainty Mindset - how businesses survive and thrive in uncertain times

The Uncertainty Mindset is a new book from Vaughn Tan, founding faculty member and Assistant Professor of Strategy and Entrepreneurship at University College London’s School of Management.

Top-end restaurants have to constantly come up with new products, just like top tech companies that are famous for being innovative. They are continually expected to take their customers on unique and exciting culinary journeys by inventing a constant stream of new dishes, exploring new cooking processes and methods, and even developing new ways of experiencing food. To learn how leading international chefs manage to inspire and maintain a state of constant innovation, Tan spent many years studying cutting-edge culinary teams such as The Fat Duck’s Experimental Kitchen, ThinkFoodGroup’s ThinkFoodTank, and Intellectual Ventures’s Cooking Lab.  

Building on this research, The Uncertainty Mindset explains how organisations can build uncertainty into how they work rather than simply trying to reduce risk. This uncertainty mindset challenges conventional innovation management principles and the way organisations hire, set goals, motivate and lead team members.

Tan outlines six key principles which can be applied by start-ups and businesses navigating rapidly and unpredictably changing industries:

1. Redesign employee job roles to be modular and provisional to create highly adaptable teams

Setting expectations that role descriptions are provisional and seeing skillsets as modular establishes from the beginning that employees will be trained to evolve, component by component, as their role adapts to new organisational demands.

2. Set expectations that employee roles will constantly shift and change in order to build high-performing teams

By constantly allowing colleagues to try multiple roles, they innately discover what they are good at as well as what each role entails.  Over time, colleagues will naturally develop respect and trust of colleague’s strengths and weaknesses, enabling responsive, adaptable organisations that work well with minimal supervision.

3. Choose to pursue open-ended goals to permit and encourage innovation

Objectives which are too finite can exclude the potential of innovation, so embrace ambiguously defined open-ended goals to create a space for true innovative progress.

4. Train employees through concrete work rather than abstract training

Routine work can be designed to offer multiple, effective opportunities for teaching, learning, and feedback. Although taking an integrated rather than abstract approach to training provides less certainty about precisely what organisation members learn, however, it enables learning which is both faster and more effective because it occurs constantly and in context.

5. Motivate innovation not with carrots but with carefully chosen sticks

Aversion to uncertainty and failure is an obstacle to innovation that incentives alone cannot overcome. Strategically ‘overloading’ an organisation with a project of significance can create a sense of productive desperation that is a better motivator for doing innovation work than incentives alone.

6. Design projects to progressively overload teams so they build the capacity to continually adapt and innovate

Gently overloading teams can break down old routines and stimulate learning. It must be done progressively so that the organisations individual and collective capacity grows gradually and in a way that can incorporate new knowledge and ways of working.  

Vaughn Tan commented that “The global pandemic has made the business environment unprecedentedly uncertain—and it has become apparent to businesses all over the world that they must learn how to manage this uncertainty to survive. The cutting-edge restaurant industry is extraordinary for the speed with which it innovates and its ability to adapt in the face of unpredictable change. Businesses across industries can learn how to survive and thrive under uncertainty by drawing on these innovation insights from the frontiers of food.”

“Whether you’re new to the culinary world or have dined in some of the world’s top restaurants, you’d be hard pressed not to find The Uncertainty Mindset fascinating. Vaughn Tan has written an intriguing, well-researched account of how some of the world’s top chefs and their teams approach culinary innovation—this book is full of valuable insights for forward-thinking, innovation-minded organisations and teams in any sector.”— Nathan Myhrvold, co-author of Modernist Bread and Modernist Cuisine; author of The Photography of Modernist Cuisine; co-founder of Intellectual Ventures and former Chief Technology Officer of Microsoft.

The book is available worldwide now.  

For more information, availability, and media resources, go to https://uncertaintymindset.org/


Notes to editors

About the Author

Vaughn Tan is an assistant professor of strategy and entrepreneurship and one of the founding faculty at University College London’s School of Management. He previously worked for Google in California. To find out more about Vaughn, you can visit his website, find him on Twitter or Instagram, or subscribe to his weekly newsletter about uncertainty in organisational and daily life.

Vaughn has also developed two small business resources that draw on the ideas in the book which are available for international use without charge:

  1. https://vaughntan.org/pandemicpivot. This is a business modelling tool for small businesses (in this instance, tailored slightly for F&B).
  2. https://fnbcovidguide.com/. This was one of the first guides for F&B coronavirus mitigation to be produced anywhere and has since been translated into multiple languages

If you would like more information or a review copy of the book, please contact: Ellie Box ebox@fireoth.com / 07974791119

Last updated Friday, 14 August 2020