Understanding uncertainty

We recently spoke to Bruce Garvey (Administrative Sciences MBA, 1974) about the publication of his new book on uncertainty, his studies and how to make the most of an MBA.

Congratulations on the upcoming release of your new book: UNCERTAINTY DECONSTRUCTED – A Guidebook for Decision Support Practitioners. Please tell us about it.

This book argues that uncertainty is not really uncertainty at all but just demonstrates a lack of vision and willingness to think about the unthinkable – good and bad. The task of accepting that uncertainty is about exploring the possible, rather than the impossible has to be taken on board by strategists, policy developers, and political leaders, if we are to meet the challenges that an ever-changing world is throwing at us. The term “unknown – unknowns” is ubiquitous, albeit the vast majority of future uncertain events do not fall into this category. However, it has been used to absolve decision makers from criticism post-event, whereas poor foresight is the prime culprit and that most future uncertainties are “known-unknowns” or “inevitable surprises”.

This re-positioning of uncertainties can help mitigate the impact of such risks through better foresight aware contingency planning. The enemy is not uncertainty itself but our lack of imagination when trying to visualise the future – we need to transform our behaviour. To better understand uncertainty we have to deconstruct it and get to grips with its component parts. Three main questions are posed and practical approaches presented: What are the main structural components that make up the conditions under which uncertainty operates? What scenario lenses can be used when exploring uncertainty? What behavioural factors do we need to consider when analysing the human responses to uncertainty? Practitioners, having to deal with making better decisions under uncertainty, will find the book a useful guide.

Why is the topic of ‘uncertainty’ of interest to you?

I’ve worked in the area of forecasting futures, for many years. In the past many commentators spoke about risk rather than uncertainty. There is a difference and I felt in the current era, people seemed more willing to address uncertainty rather than just risk. There is a difference and this difference needs to be articulated better.

Did your time at Bayes help you move into this specialist area?

Partially – my early working career was involved with forecasting, strategic and operational planning – the MBA helped to add credibility for a number of future employers.

Looking back to your studies, why did you choose Bayes for your MBA studies?

I studied for my MBA back in the seventies when the course was known as an MSc. in Administrative Science in what was then known as the Graduate Business School of City University. At that time, there were but a handful of business schools in the UK, notable amongst them the London Business School, Manchester Business School, Bradford, Cranfield and City. However, apart from Cranfield and City, all the other school programmes were two academic years, whereas Cranfield and City offered a full 12-month calendar year of study. In addition, I had just bought a flat in Brighton and thus relocating to Cranfield in Bedfordshire would have been logistically problematic. I also had a work colleague who had attended the school and seemed very satisfied.

You were previously the chair of the Bayes Entrepreneurs Special Interest Group. What did you enjoy most about the role and being a member of this Group?

Meeting new cohorts of alumni who joined the committee, as well as putting on a wide range of events for alumni and indeed students who were interested in entrepreneurship. My period of occupancy of the post was mainly before the school started its own entrepreneurship programme. The highlight of the event year was the open-air champagne mid-summer networking session which I introduced – which was always well attended as you might imagine and we did drink real champagne rather than Prosecco!

We’d be delighted to hear more about your time at Bayes. Do you have any standout memories that you would like to share?

Well it was a long time ago – but I did meet a lady on the course, who was to become my wife!

What happened after you graduated? Did you make use of the Careers and Professional Development team?

Immediately accepted post back at previous employer (Xerox IHQ).

Could you tell us a little bit about your career following graduation and up to writing the book?

Having left my previous employer (Xerox IHQ) to study for an MBA, and look further afield, they made me an offer I couldn’t refuse, and I returned to them. Also, I worked in Iran during the revolution; on return to the UK became an entrepreneur – sold out too early (nothing like experience), then appointed Managing Director of media service company in a turnaround role before moving onto a variety of  consultancy/advisory positions including being a NED of a few companies.

To develop interest in decision making methods under uncertainty undertook and to enhance intellectual rigour of the subject, I carried out a research-based PhD at Imperial College London. A considerable part of the input for my book stems from this research.

What advice would you give others looking to follow in your footsteps?

In regard to doing an MBA, treat it as a generalist degree. Many people start out their career in some form of specialist role which is then developed in the earlier years of employment. As one (hopefully) moves into more demanding roles within an organisation, the skill set needs to be expanded and exposed to different functions within that organisation. After all, an organisation is a sum of its parts rather than just one narrow function. I would advise that an MBA should be selected on the basis of a panoramic view of business rather than increasing one’s narrow specialisation.

UNCERTAINTY DECONSTRUCTED – A Guidebook for Decision Support Practitioners will be published this summer. Find out more about it here.

Thank you to Bruce for sharing his story! Connect at garvey@strategyforesight.org or visit www.strategyforesight.co.uk. Bruce hopes to join the Bayes Summer Celebration on 28 June 2022 and welcomes chatting with anyone there who’d like to know more about the book and its topic.