Ontological Uncertainty and Innovation

Thought folks might find this 2004 working paper from David A. Lane and Robert Maxfield at the Sante Fe Institute of interest:  http://www.santafe.edu/research/publications/workingpapers/04-06-014.pdf.  It’s a little dense, to say the least, so I posted this brief summary of which elements caught my attention....   


As I read it (I'm simplifying, and the authors don't explicitly reference systems thinking), “ontological uncertainty” is essentially uncertainty actors in a system (as in systems thinking or systems dynamics, see The Fifth Discipline by Peter Senge for more) face when the impacts of their actions last beyond the stable structure of a system itself.  In other words, whether they know it or not, when a knowledge of the existing system would still not allow them to predict the impacts of their actions. 


One of the things I like about this article is that it provides a larger theoretical underpinning to the advice we sometimes give ourselves in times of uncertainty and rapid change – namely, to focus on “enduring” principles.  I think the authors of the linked article would argue that these principles are essentially part of a larger story we tell ourselves about the world.  In fact, the principles seem to me to be especially connected to the part of our “larger story” of the world that is most *about ourselves*. 


The authors argue that actors use a narrative, or series of stories about themselves and the system they are in to keep making decisions during periods of high uncertainty and that this is can inspire a confidence which can increase actor effectiveness.  While the narrative can enable “effective” action, it also constrains actors to decisions that make narrative sense at decision-time.  The process may not be even be conscious to actors, but by embedding narratives into their perceptions of their world, actors can make sense of context they may literally act out their (somewhat) self-“assigned roles”.   In this way, actors may “back in to the future”. 


The connection to innovation is summed up here:

“…[A]gents facing ontological uncertainty can enter into and nurture relationships with generative potential; and … generative potential may be realized through the discovery of semantic uncertainty, whose exploration may lead to new attributions that may then be instantiated in new kinds of artifacts or agents….  [O]ntological and semantic uncertainty lead to more ontological and semantic uncertainty, as efforts to resolve them also uncover further entities, relations and concepts that must be interpreted in their turn. The locus of these transformations can shift from one set of actors to another, from one generative relationship to another. The story is long, because the processes it is intended to illustrate are subtle and highly context dependent, but its moral is simple: novelty often arises from relationships and context, not only in flashes of inspiration in individual brains.”  (p. 24).


Especially so, when actors have aligned interests but different views that they are capable of exploring with each other. 

This theory also offers an interesting lens to view scenario planning, as scenario planning is essentially a mechanism for us to consciously tell ourselves more than one "story" at a time about the world we live in -- thereby giving ourselves a vehicle to individually and collectively explore different views inside our heads. 


Not for the faint of heart, but insightful.


The question for you: do you believe this is insight is actionable in your enviroment? 


Comments (4)

  1. Beyond | IT says:

    In the late 1990’s we saw the emergence of the so-called “Network Effect” and increasing marginal returns

  2. Beyond | IT says:

    Are you thinking about your consumers’ personal value stream? The businesses I generally work with are

  3. Beyond | IT says:

    Ontological uncertainty exists when, even if you perfectly know and understand the environment you’re

  4. Dating says:

    Thought folks might find this 2004 working paper from David A. Lane and Robert Maxfield at the Sante Fe Institute of interest: http://www.santafe.edu/research/publications/workingpapers/04-06-014.pdf . It’s a little dense, to say the least, so I poste

Skip to main content