An executive getting high on certainty? Agile is your rehab.

Ambiguity and uncertainty is an increasing factor when businesses are moving into a complex domain (where cause and effect relationships are only visible “post-event”) from a more complicated domain (where cause and effect relationships are, if complicated, still predictable).

This is tricky, because we humans have a brain that through it’s fundamental building blocks says; Uncertainty is bad, certainty is great. Certainty increases activation in our reward circuitry, and basically helps us as a species know what to expect, what to approach and what to avoid. (Bromberg-Martin and Hirosaka, 2009, Lingawi and Balleine, 2012) The more we are missing information in a decision making situation, the less our reward circuitry is active. Instead this lack of information correlates with the activation of our amygdala, the emotional (threat) center of the brain and increases anxiety (Herry et al, 2007).

Since the 1910’s and Taylor’s Scientific management, we have built up organizations to control and predict the future. Executives spend millions and millions on creating strategies to create an illusion of knowing how it all will play out. Financial officers compile budgets and long term plans, arguing if the margin will be 4,5% or 4,7% in 2022. As if they’d know. They are just satisfying their and their peer’s biological need of certainty. Participating in a worldwide legal scam of creating false sense of certainty according to the annual clock. (Bogsnes, 2008, Laloux,2013)

When businesses are moving towards self-directed, non-hierarchical, agile or lean startup principles all the content certainty disappears.

Uncertainty is the basic assumption of the agile organization. We don’t expect to know, because the world is too complex.

We need to probe and act, planning our journey stepwise, using the best available information gained by the people who actually are working with the issues, to make as good decisions as we can, while we constantly move in a somewhat feasible direction. The tools, processes and methods available for this type of business operations are embracing the uncertainty and external change. It is not the content that creates the certainty anymore. The processes and practices are. Instead of creating the illusion of an ability to foresee 3-5 years into the future, we are able to in the best case create an organization, which can handle uncertainty organically, and work with it.

In the worst case, we create an organization still run by the socialistic long term planning fans in the boards and executive lounges, who need their reward kicks out of the false sense of certainty. These execs who have heard from their pals that “hey there are these new fast methodologies that these agile companies are using”, and they start driving implementation by the agile methodologies, but forgetting about turning the practices, structures and umm… honestly, their own brain, agile. That is like teaching the employees to become top swimmers but competing counter current. Not very energy efficient and frankly, pretty stupid.

What we need are board members and executives, who get this. Otherwise we’re just swimming counter current until we decide to ditch that team and start swimming by ourselves… or with the others who are swimming with the current.

Thanks for reading!



Bogsnes, B. (2009). Implementing beyond budgeting. Hoboken, N.J.: John Wiley & Sons.

Bromberg-Martin, E. and Hikosaka, O. (2009). Midbrain Dopamine Neurons Signal Preference for Advance Information about Upcoming Rewards. Neuron, 63(1), pp.119-126.

Herry, C., Bach, D., Esposito, F., Di Salle, F., Perrig, W., Scheffler, K., Luthi, A. and Seifritz, E. (2007). Processing of Temporal Unpredictability in Human and Animal Amygdala. Journal of Neuroscience, 27(22), pp.5958-5966.

Laloux, F. (2014). Reinventing organizations. Belgium. Nelson-Parker.

Lingawi, N. and Balleine, B. (2012). Amygdala Central Nucleus Interacts with Dorsolateral Striatum to Regulate the Acquisition of Habits. Journal of Neuroscience, 32(3), pp.1073-1081.


Picture:  georgeparrilla / Foter / CC BY