Problems that are Uncertainties

Requiring creativity and patience

Problems with Uncertainties are similar to Puzzles except that some variables are unknown, and will remain so until some time in the future. The uncertainty means we have to look at multiple futures rather than a single path. There are external events beyond our control which will have a major impact on whether the problem can be solved, or whether it will stay solved. We have to live with the ambiguity, and stay involved with an emerging solution that may require midcourse corrections.



  • Strategic planning in the face of rapidly changing technologies and/or volatile market conditions
  • Family planning
  • Building facilities for a school district based on imagined kindergarten enrollment 5-10 years out
  • Deciding whether to build a gas cracking plant (which takes a decade to build) in the face of fluctuating foreign oil prices, uncertain access to coal deposits, regulatory policies, and shifting public opinion
  • Project planning (will all our suppliers come through? will someone get sick? will it rain?)

The Present
  • A felt pressure to make a decision now.
  • Some of the key variables are unknown, and will only become known at some future time.
  • Any present choice presumes a future that cannot be guaranteed.

Likely Actions
  • Crafting scenarios which are believable and which bracket the likely range of the unknown variables.
  • Look for commonalities across the likely scenarios
  • Plan for each scenario separately
  • Set up some mechanism for tracking the emergence of future events.

The Future

Common Typing Errors

Problems with Uncertainties are missed most often because we simply do not want to admit to the ambiguities in our future. We prefer to make our "best guess" and then pretend the world will follow only one path. Failures are attributed to poor implementation rather than taken as indications of another scenario for which there is no plan in place.

Unlike Puzzles, these problems cannot simply be developed and then handed over. They require an ongoing engagement with the situation to make sure the right scenario is being activated. The need to remain involved, and to live with unresolvable uncertainty, is one of the more frustrating features of this problem type. Sometimes executives will tire of the openness and (unfortunately) push for a "single path" on which the organization can focus its limited resources.

< Copyright 2003 by Jerry L. Talley [ Home Page ]