Karate Kid and Uncertainty

Updated: Mar 20, 2020

Communicating change to adults in organisations is a very different situation to explaining uncertainty to our four-year-old but the same concepts apply.

The current situation and uncertainty about COVID-19 is a topical example.

‘We are uncertain about when he can next go to Karate classes, no it isn’t a punishment, it is out of our control and we can’t bend the rules’

So what do we know about uncertainty and why is it so challenging for adults and children to cope with?

Thanks to recent research (2016 De Berker et al) we know that the uncertainty of ‘not knowing’ if a bus is delayed is worse than ‘knowing ‘ the bus is delayed. Studies found a strong correlation between uncertainty and stress. 'It's the not knowing' is a phrase that many of us are familiar with, but now there is evidence that this is a rational and logical response and feeling.

We continually evaluate situations according to either;

  • What do I get from this?

  • What do I lose from this?

  • When have I experienced this before?

Continuous evaluation of uncertainty is useful, effectively we expect uncertainty to diminish over time as we take small or large actions, for example, building the foundation of a large construction project might reduce uncertainty of the total time to complete by up to 30%. A text alert to tell us the bus is cancelled diminishes uncertainty completely, it might be disappointing but it will not be as stressful as 'not knowing'.

Estimating uncertainty is a project management discipline that’s been used in engineering, science and construction for decades, more widely known as uncertainty analysis, but also more recently in agile software development, where the highest value deliverables are tackled first, the scrum team move through iterations the ability to estimate increases as uncertainty diminishes. That’s the theory anyway!

For projects that are familiar or 'we have experienced this before' the art of estimating should be easier, but most project managers are very aware that the environment, people and culture are intangible variables in the success of any project, more so than the condition of the equipment being implemented.

The cone of uncertainty is a model described by McConnell (2006) that uses a scale of uncertainty over time of the project, where least is known at the start and most is known at the end.

Our physical and mental ability to cope with change and uncertainty as humans is initself amazing, our biological systems are both quick to adapt and resistant to change, the complexity of change coupled with uncertainty has a huge part to play in our reactions and how stressed we feel.

So what’s happening to us when we are experiencing uncertainty?

  • Our stress levels are higher, by that we mean that our bodies create more stress hormones, preparing us for ‘flight or fight’

  • Anyone who has felt stress has probably had difficulty in concentrating as the learning and memory area of the brain are very sensitive to stress, whereas the region that regulates our emotional response ramps up

  • Our bodies create more energy, hormone and brain activity is energy producing, you are more likely to experience insomnia, this was once an essential survival tool for our evolution

Our experience of managing change through uncertainty at Ainge Consulting is that stress or fear can mobilise a project for good or more often than not, paralyse it.

So how does knowing what is happening to us, help us to cope, to face our fears, and how can we use estimating tools when faced with uncertainty?

  • Focus on what you know and what you can control. Taking decisive action about what/if scenarios so that you can move into the less stressful phase of certainty might actually help, in the agile world start with the tasks or the problems that you can build on

  • Use the Cone of Uncertainty as a visual tool with project teams, it’s a powerful reminder that certainty will come once action is taken

  • Face fear, it is more stressful and counterproductive on team progress to ‘not know’, test the unknowns and create a safe environment for teams to experiment and fail, in agile this is the process of iteration and each iteration action provides more certainty moving teams down the funnel

  • On a human level you want to create a balance between ‘dealing with the problem’ and ‘regulating your emotions towards the problem’, starting with the team understanding certainty and having a method to estimate uncertainty can help with regulating team emotion and motivation

"Lesson not just karate only. Lesson for whole life. Whole life have a balance. Everything be better." Mr Miyagi, Karate Kid
  • There is no magic formula for change, although there are plenty of good models including Kotter, I ask my clients to focus on progress not perfection in difficult situations, moving from uncertainty to certainty improves our physical and mental performance

Back to real life... the approach we are taking with the four year old is to focus on what we can control, practising using different methods (youtube) to learn moves, and taking actions to move us closer to the probability of going to a physical lesson by doing something as simple as washing our hands.

''This school sucks, man. Sucks" - Daniel, Karate Kid

As parents we are also facing the fear of home schooling, first learning objective on his curriculum is Kung Foo Panda as he's not quite old enough to watch Karate Kid.


  • Study by De Berker et al found a strong correlation between stress responses and environmental uncertainty in an article they published in Nature Communications 2016

  • Cone of Uncertainty is adapted from, Software Estimation: Demystifying the Black Art, © 2006 Steven C. McConnell

  • The Karate Kid (1984) Columbia Pictures

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