-- Intro --
Hello, folks. Before we start today's episode, I just wanted to give you a quick warning about our interview which contains a splattering of naughty words. Now, if that's not your thing, or you're with people who shouldn't be hearing that type of language, probably best to give this a swerve. Otherwise, enjoy the show.
Welcome to Workplace Geeks, the podcast that aims to jab nudge and fathom the world of workplace research and talk to the amazing brains behind it. I’m Chris Moriarty, one of your hosts, and I'm joined as ever by the cheeky northern chap that is Ian Ellison. Hello, Ian.
So, let's get into today's episode. Now in our last episode, you'll remember we spoke to Dan Pilling at The Workplace Event. So that was a live chat, where we explore the role of evidence and research in the world of workplace consultancy.
In that interview, Dan spoke about the frustration that he has about gaining access to some of that evidence and research. So that got us thinking, could we find something that was academic in nature, but was being applied in a very real non-academic environment? So, this episode, and the next one does exactly that. It looks at how academic practice is supporting projects or ideas outside of journals and the light. So, Ian, who do we have lined up today?
Okay, Chris. So today we are speaking to Sam Conniff. Sam may be familiar to many of you, as the author of being more pirates, a book that focuses on the topic of professional rule breaking. But we're not going to be talking to Sam about that today. Instead, we're going to be talking to him about his new project called Uncertainty Experts. Now, Sam describes this as an interactive learning documentary. And that's something that we're going to dive into more in our discussion with him.
But the reason we wanted to speak to him wasn't just about Uncertainty Experts itself, it was about a paper about the project, which caught our eye. It was written by Dr. Avri Bilovich and Sam. And it was presented at the recent CIPD Applied Research Conference. So, what they were doing with this paper was essentially testing the impact and efficacy of Uncertainty Experts on the people who engaged with it. Now, Chris, if you know anything about learning and development, it's basically the Holy Grail is this to be able to prove or doubt that something intangible makes a tangible difference. So, what we were really interested in wasn't just about the Uncertainty Experts. It was about how does somebody move from an idea, and something that they're really passionate about exploring, to something that can be robustly tested, and proven. So, there you go.
Thank you, Ian. So, this was a difficult chat for Ian, because whilst in previous episodes, I was outnumbered by academics Ian here, and this chat is surrounded by people that like to spin a yarn to tell a story and get easily distracted by interesting shiny ideas. So, we talked to Sam a lot about the story behind Uncertainty Experts and how it's interwoven with Sam's life and all of that during a pandemic. We don't dive too deeply into what Ian just talks about, about the research element. We talk about it and its importance, but we don't dive straight in.
So, we're back after this conversation to talk about that in more detail. Sam has also very kindly offered us a discount code for anyone interested in experiencing the Uncertainty Experts’ programme. So, listen out for that at the end of the episode, but for now, over to Sam Conniff.
-- Interview --
Sam, thanks for joining us on Workplace Geeks to get us going, can you tell us a little bit about yourself where people may have seen your work or heard you speak and how some of that work has led to what we're talking to you about today.
Thank you very much for having me. I think the line that I like that goes through most of my work is around kind of rewriting rules. But the things that I'm really proud of that have done things differently is Liberty, which is an agency that I ran for several years designed around young people, but it used space and access in interesting ways. So, we presented as a marketing agency, which enabled clients to take us kind of seriously, that for young people, we were a youth club. And we were a big warehouse in Brixton and then in lots of different places around the world. And then would use the projects that we've ran to give young people a training platform, but then that became a gateway into firms as far and wide as all across the music industry, from Google, to Facebook to big banks from Barclays. I mean, you know, no sector or business that wasn't touched.
And that's so that's probably the thing that I've done for the longest and it's certainly the thing that taught me the most and in any other projects that we might talk about from pirates to somewhere to uncertainty, the roots of all that I've learned probably is from those kids from the more challenging backgrounds and the privilege of getting to see the world through their eyes and how they had to navigate. You know the rules that we take for granted as the way of doing things, how you have to approach that when you're when you've grown up outside the system.
Yeah, big organisations would come down to Brixton, often we'd be like doing innovation. They'd go to Google's head offices or Apple or something. And then they'd come down to Brixton. And they'd be really surprised, very often we get our young people to let go meet them in their hotel and bring them on public transport. We do everything to kind of not like deliberately in inverted commas disrupt their thinking, but to awaken the fact as to how different their thinking was to reality. And you'd get the senior leadership teams come back with such a new outlook on their world because of this confrontation with honesty. And they were well out of their depth when it came to helping young people navigate a bus route or something relatively straightforward. And it was. So, in one sense, it was a reality check in another sentence, it was a kind of real grounding of, of insight
What was that journey like, between what you've just described, to something like be more pirate, what was that kind of leap about?
I was increasingly frustrated. At the world of change, that liberty was kind of at the epicentre of, I hadn't realised there was an industry like in innovation. And that was really exciting. So, I thought, oh, we're going to make some kind of make a difference here. And you'll get invited to like all sorts of places with really powerful people. And then after two days of sticking post it notes to the walls and people just calling the same shit with by different names, and then all broadly agreeing to go back to work and do nothing about something. And then the one or two good ideas that got that came up with refer this later suffocated in an email thread, and then left that I was like, well, this isn't, this isn't gonna lead to the kind of lasting change that I'm interested in.
And then we got picked up and we were named, and I became a leader in social enterprise where the boundaries between business and the social benefit, blur and purpose and profit begin to blur. And this whole kind of new approach to work was heralded. And that was really exciting. And then that really seemed to have its limitations. And that's the, you know, that's a world that I still respect and admire, massively. And we found ourselves at this intersection between kind of picking a huge corporate business trying to find its purpose, huge government policy, trying to find its place. And nothing seem to work, you know, I started this when I was very young and idealistic in 2001, and it got to 2015. And we're heading towards a referendum on Donald Trump. If I set out to make the world a better place, I've really failed. Sorry, everyone, and I was careering towards being 40.
And people, Liberty is very, very much a youth focused organisation. And I'd said I would leave when I was old, I didn't want to be hanging around. And I'd said naively, very early on that, that meant I had to get up for 40. Because when I was young, I thought he was old. So, all of these things came to pass. And it was time to go and let a younger and more smarter generation and do the CEO, Alex go now is demonstrated that that was the right thing to do and re innovate that organisation and get out of the way. And so, I had a chip on my shoulder about not being academic, and what I thought maybe writing a book would help me through that, that, that challenge. And I wanted to write a book that was very critical of the kind of change world and the promise of change.
And I was going through a major upheaval in my own life, I was entering into separation divorce, and were two small kids. And so, I felt like a book might give me a kind of sense of flexibility that running a business doesn't, didn't have. So, there's loads of things it was peak, it was peak uncertainty and peak midlife crisis. And peak threats, all everyone would say about writing a book is that it doesn't make any money. So, it was broadly terrifying. And I wrote the most boring book ever. I got 20,000 words into a book called Purpose First, and that was what got commissioned. And it was a really worthy and very long-winded cry for a rethink of what purpose and business means. And you know, would have probably had 250 people who agree with me read it. And luckily, I was beginning to workshop the material because my, the methodology of liberty is the only methodology I know, which is really, really like wrestling ideas with the people who are going to hopefully buy them down the line. So, I was testing it in all manner of environments.
And the kids were just like, when did you get so boring? And in my mind, I was trying to grow up in my evolution from Liberty and in their mind. And then one kid just said, one young, one bright, smart young person said, where's all the usual like rocket ships and pirates and like, where's all the stuff the stories that made a difference? And that we remembered, and I went back to my desk, everything written down where all the pirates, and thought why do I always talk about pirates? And a week later, I was in the British Museum, researching pirates, and I uncovered a history that's never ever told about them, and suddenly I had a vehicle and so I don't claim any prior knowledge or insight to what I then discovered. And then one of those moments you're like, holy shit, the more books I was reading, like, the more you could find this quite buried away, like the true history of pirates is this egalitarian, you know, deeply innovative, very socially conscious community as well as being murdering kidnapping, you know, bastards.
Surely this, this story is about a bath like it's surely no one who knows this could not be wanting to tell the world this. So it kind of became a bit of a race to get and now there has been a couple more books and things that have touched on this, it became a race against time, a race against myself to try and capture that story, do justice to the history, teach myself how to write and then somehow encapsulating that an argument around capitalism and what we do with it. But I wanted to write a book that was a critique of business that was so fun, you read it on the beach. And that was the kind of paradox that I was trying to inhabit.
I guess that kind of idea of using a common cultural kind of iconography almost, you know, that people can relate to as a way of telling a story and getting to something more serious a message underneath it is kind of a nice segue into Uncertainty Experts, which is what we wanted to talk to you about today. Tell us what Uncertainty Experts is, in a nutshell, if that's even possible, and just sort of you know how some of that experience you just talked about got you there.
So, the Uncertainty Experts is, I describe it as the world's first interactive learning documentary that is scientifically proven to increase uncertainty tolerance. And there's lots of things in there that don't actually make sense. And I know that the best advice you can give anyone trying to market something is not to think that they've invented a niche. But I somewhat like to think that I've entered a niche.
It shows up in the world as a part online course, you know, there are there are stages to it that you experience online. Visually, it's made as a documentary, it's shot in beautiful 4k by lovely filmmakers from around the world. And the people that I've interviewed, are talking to us from the kind of the NGO that they run in Iraq, or their Laboratory in California, or the centre of their climate justice campaign in Uganda. And then it's backed by in a really deep scientific evidence and research and experimental psychologists and behavioural psychologists and empathy designers. Yes, the such thing helps me create a series of questions so that you're watching this show. It's explaining how certain people have overcome uncertainty, not just overcome uncertainty, but turned it into an unparalleled opportunity. And then every now and then you're hit with a question or reflection, and that shows up on your mobile. And it's usually quite uncomfortable. And you're forced to reflect on the experiences of your life and uncertainty and inspired by the stories that you've just seen.
And these reflections over time, begin to build up a model of who you are, and how you could look out on the world. And then in between, these are some quite fun behavioural experiments and psychological experiments that also kind of begin to shift your understanding and experience of uncertainty. And at the beginning, and at the end of it, we take, a takes about 20 minutes full scientific assessment of your uncertainty tolerance. And thus far, surprisingly to everyone. In nearly 97% of instances of participants who’d been through it, there's a statistically significant increase in people's uncertainty tolerance, which can have profound effects and we'd go into those a bit more detail. But broadly speaking, it's drivers of anxiety. So, uncertainty, helps lift up anger, anxiety and improve it, creativity.
And that can be defined as problem solving, open mindedness, ability to sit with ambiguity, we measure multiple subsets, and then kind of productivity because it's around focus and drive momentum. And we wouldn't have imagined those were the outcomes we were going to get when we were kind of bringing this thing into life. But that's broadly not very clearly what it is an online interactive documentary that fundamentally changes your outlook on uncertainty. But the through line is the characters that you meet are in inverted commas pirates, they are smugglers, to after a 10-year career in smuggling, which is a pretty uncertain trade. And by God, that was a fun interview because we talked a lot about the transferable skills of smugglers in Mark is now a trauma specialist, Harley street trauma specialist, you can't get an appointment with Carl who handed up running gangs and now runs businesses effective runs a multi-million pound investment fund into other social impact businesses, or Morgan who's experienced in the criminal justice system enabled her to become this world changing, life changing, law changing human rights activist or res who was born in a refugee camp in Pakistan, and it was just named New Zealand or the year having become a Harvard graduated lawyer and now building these programs of education for young women across Iraq.
Or John, who was a prisoner of war during the original Iraq conflict and now writes books on leadership and uncertainty as well as consultant. So, you get the sense, right. The definition I was looking for was someone who's prolonged exposure to uncertainty in the shadows. have life enabled them to rewire neurologically. And then they've now become a kind of leading light in the in the mainstream and more recognisable world that we understand that it's their experiences that just couldn't be served up with bloody Elon Musk, again, as another example of kind of innovation, leadership and disruption. And then back them up not just by science and evidence. But an a chance to reflect, which I think is one of the really rare things anyone gets at the moment.
What you've done there, Sam, as you kind of told us what Uncertainty Experts is, let's just spend a little bit of time digging into the why, and some of it, you kind of pointed to there. But what we're going to do in this discussion is we're going to talk about the product, the thing that it is the intervention, the initiative, all of those wonderful things that you sort of beautifully bring to life, we're also going to talk about the evaluation of its efficacy. Because what you did with one of your academic collaborators, you did a very rigorous field study to test the efficacy of the pilot. So, what I'm going to do to get us into the whys, I'm going to turn to a couple of statements that are actually in that evaluation, which is, you said the intervention was designed as response to briefs and requests from UK employers seeking workshops around resilience, wellbeing, collaboration, and psychological safety.
And the other thing that pops up a bit further down this, this evaluation is heightened by the collision of Brexit, the climate crisis and the COVID 19 pandemic. Uncertainty is at an all-time high. So, what I'm getting from this and well, from what I'm getting from what you just said is, there's kind of an organisational need, there's kind of a personal need, there's kind of a wider societal environmental need. But the normal narrative is that uncertainty is a negative thing. And what I'm hearing is that you're almost reframing it as an entirely positive thing at both a personal and organisational level.
So, there was a lot that I learned from being more pirate, that surprised me, and they got taken up by organisations in ways that I never would have conceived of when I'd written it. However, I was frustrated because it kept being billed or I was being asked to come in to provide inspiration. And having told you the journey of liberty, I didn't want to just provide inspiration that I was interested in action. And so frustrated was I to try and understand whether being a pirate had led to action. I wrote a follow up book with the woman who now runs the community called how to be more pirate, where we interviewed dozens of organisations that have taken our board.
And so, it gave me something that I hadn't had before. And that was why I was so keen with this new project for it not just to be about oh, great. Here's some interesting smugglers or people whose life has experience who can inspire me to do something. I think where we stand in the world right now that inspiration without action is going to lead us to further frustration or talk mindless action equals shit. And so that was why there was this questioning me about proof really, really early on. And then a couple of things happened. I was piloting the very early stage material humans, you know, we're mid pandemic, there's a lot of confusion going on.
For me, and this comes from a very personal place, the life I had had entered into running workshops for big brands around the world on based on being a best-selling author. This was a world that I felt a huge impostor syndrome of, but it was a very flexible, fluid and financially lucrative lifestyle. And then all of a sudden, there was no income, like income everything, like there was for so many people. And the more I panicked, and the more I very quickly ran into serious debt, I realised how much I needed the answer that I've been looking for. How, how hard it is, for classic leadership to talk about not knowing what to do, and that being okay, and even possibly a good thing.
And I knew this because I'd seen it and we've been exploring it would being more power, you know, changing and challenging the rules requires doubt. And it requires being able to stay in doubt, as a as an area for exploration. But that's not classically what we're trained to do, right to have the answer, have the clear vision and be able to put it into 140 characters and have three things that people can go and repeat. You know, that's been broadly much of the way we've learned to lead. And so suddenly, in this space, where I knew what was being trotted out, like new normals building back better, that's because we were uncomfortable in states of the unknown. And we prefer to go to the familiar than we would to go to the future. And there were these threads, right. And it was in watching the daily briefings. It was just like you, not only are you misleading, but you're unable to spot the opportunity. What point are we allowed to be optimistic about the upheaval that this is causing? And it felt very difficult to do that there wasn't a space of leadership to go this thing can make things better. There's huge upheaval that costing lives and livelihoods is a chance to make things better and with the bravery, the openness, the sense of discovery, you know, how do you do that and an appropriate way. It's really, really hard.
And I talk about that I think at the, towards the end of being more pirate that the you know, remember reading about the economic planning that led to not just the Marshall Plan at the end of the second world war that began in like 1941. So, you don't know the outcome of the events, you know, millions are going to die. And yet you're able to begin planning for what comes next. Wondering where to go for inspiration, I put out a call to volunteer mentoring time to young people who had been in my networks. And if they were suffering in their businesses, and something, something really interesting happened, I got lots of young people take up the opportunity. And speaking to them was a joy. And they were doing fine. And they many of them had really great plans to pivot and move the deliveries and do whatever they were doing.
And there was a close proximity, it seemed to those who had been more mischievous in their past, were more able to like reinvent their business overnight. And there was an adaptiveness. To them, that was a joy to hear. And then I had several people kind of slide in, who weren't young people that I've mentored in the past, but they've been ex clients. And they were like, I'm having a really hard time with this. I am really scared. And I don't know really how to show up. And so, it became quite clear this this this, this dichotomy was there. And that's this, the thought occurred now wonder if there's an expertise in uncertainty that we just overlook, because it doesn't match up with our experience of expertise. And I wrote up a short piece, just on my medium account, it kind of had a viral impact from for what I write.
But people really connected with this paradoxical term Uncertainty Experts. And so, I started looking for others. And then quickly, I had this kind of online workshop I was running. And I'd interviewed a couple of ex refugees who started businesses, some my community of young people who'd been in justice system. And because I was looking for this efficacy model, I asked people to score themselves at the beginning, how do they feel about turning uncertainty into opportunity, and again, at the end, so it wasn't robust science, but it was something and the appetite for this, you know, what was then the kind of zoom call and I’d hacked stuff together, I built a little green screen at home, I was a, you know, just didn't want to present a zoom call to a world that was having more than one of zoom calls, and managed to make something that felt a bit different. And these strands were coming together.
Now that it was It wasn't your average workshop, it was using documentary and storytelling as a technique. I did an online course about online courses. So, I talked a little bit about learning architecture and brought into learning designers. And this idea that there was a measure in place. And then it was by absolute luck that I got introduced to a scientist who was also looking at uncertainty. And then one of my Uncertainty Experts I interviewed was a computational neuroscientist who began life as a man went through near suicide, depression, then gender transition, which then fully allowed her to realise who she is in the world. Now she is rated. I just read that by the Financial Times as a LGBTQ plus leader, top 10 in science in the world. And she just said to me, Sam, you got to understand what's going on in these people is neurological, and it's explained in the brain. Uncertainty is this is great report called one fear to rule them all. And it outlines numerous studies around anxiety, particularly, that identify uncertainty, as the baseline fear is the driver of all anxieties. And because it's fear, it's really hard for us to name it.
So, we talk about loss of drive, or anxiety or exhaustion, or sleeplessness, which is symptomatic of our profound fear of the unknown, as human beings. And uncertainty is that in that space, but she also pointed me towards this one's called Dr. Vivian Ming, uncertainty has shown again and again, both in history and science and economics, to be a driver of profound innovation. But usually it's when our backs are against the wall, or we're on our knees, you know, figuratively or emotionally.
And so, what if became a question in my mind, you can bring that process forward, like in a shorthand, that famous Nietzsche line, whatever doesn't kill you makes you stronger, something we broadly all agree with retrospectively. But if it's truth, then is it not possible that that could be the case? In a future sense? And could you begin to change your relationship with the shitshow that's coming and recognise that it's going to make us stronger. And that was kind of the I wouldn't call it hypothesis, but, but broadly speaking, the thing that I went out to try and test
I thought what was coming along here was kind of there was an idea. And then there was a pilot, and then there's a fully blown product. And then there was an evaluation of proof of concept. What you've articulated there is actually the desire to prove the concept was baked into the design all the way through and because of that, you end up assembling a group of discovering recruiting, befriending a recruit of your Uncertainty Experts, but the other members of this gang are your academic team Avary and Kate and Vivian. And so, you've kind of got these key players, these key stakeholders in the design of this thing.
Yeah, absolutely. And something, there was also this kind of like this back backstory of my the burning bridge of my own life. Right? So, I'm workshopping this thing, I've got this desire to understand why it's working, I've got this very simple kind of self-efficacy model to see what's increasing. And yes, I'm getting more and more briefs from clients as there's knowledge, you know, I'm trying to access my networks. And people are talking about resilience and psychological safety and wellbeing, and innovation and leadership. So, you get a sense of where the opportunity might be.
And then, with Katherine Templar-Lewis, who had been, you know, she's both got neuroscience background and psychology background, and she was looking at uncertainty, she really helped me begin to like, create more of what you might call a robust framework. This by this stage, were in the beginning of last year. And what I'd seen, I've been doing this valley, I've been asking everybody, could they could they describe the negative impact of uncertainty on their life. And I've had, you know, we have three and a half 1000 people by that stage. And so, I had hundreds of individual word responses, and I realised they could be grouped into three areas. And this became really important and still remains in the foundational design of the whole thing. Far and away, the most commonly cited negative impacts of uncertainty was fear.
And it was summed up in lots and lots of different ways, but it was unequivocally fear. And this was very interesting, because at the time, the conversations were, how do we adapt to asynchronous working? And how do we collaborate on online platforms? Right, so that the challenge that businesses was talking about was not close to the real problem. The real problem was, I'm fucking scared. The where, where do I? Where do I bring that? So, if we call it out, and we understand it as fear, I think you've got something foundational to work with. And interestingly, when you tune the drive, the biggest fears that people cited, were fear of things changing and fear of things not changing equally.
And that kind of sums up what uncertainty does. The second major element that came through I could sum up as fog. And that was indecision confusion, you know, not knowing which way to go. Lots of different things were said. But fog felt like a catch all. And then thirdly, was I called it stasis. And that was listlessness, exhaustion, stuckness meh. And so, these three things fear fog, and stasis, began to provide a useful summary for actually the real-life experience that were happening. And you know, to use an overused metaphor, is kind of the iceberg effect. So, we were talking about increased anxiety, and exhaustion, and the difficulties of asynchronous working and they will true, but underneath it fear fog, and stasis is what lots of people were experiencing.
And so, the brief as it's cited in the research that we were getting was around, can we address psychological safety and better collaboration? And as well, yeah, we can. But you want people to feel brave and confident, you want some clarity and strategy, and you want to feel progress, like I kept hearing firm saying, yep, we want to get people back into the fifth gear. Yeah, great, of course, you do totally understand why you do. But if the reality of the experience is connected to these states of fear, fog, and stasis, then fifth gear is just gonna break a lot of people. So, what we found was three antonyms, where you can move from a state of fear to a place of action, it's very hard to go from fear to bravery.
And in a way, kind of, does bravery really exist as a construct anyway, because it doesn't exist without its opposite part. But nonetheless, with it, whilst you can't really ever deny or diminish, or even just distract yourself from fear in a way that doesn't then, you know, grew up to see you act out on it later. You can reframe it and it can stop being such a headwind that holds you back into a tailwind that drives you forward, fear is a powerful motivating force, most people would agree with that. And if you can map that you have, you can manage that even a little bit, it can begin to push you in the right direction, rather than the wrong direction.
And, and fog didn't ever lead to total clarity, no one ever, like suddenly, very rarely get that epiphany moment when you're feeling under it. But what people really believed in was that it did create an adaptiveness you know, not quite creativity, but an adaptability. And lastly, getting out of that sense of stuckness or stasis, connection, it originally, we thought it was trust, trust in yourself, trust and others, but actually, it was connection, when people suddenly felt connected back to teams suddenly felt connected back to the purpose of what they were doing, or even just connected back to yourself. Okay, deep breath. And suddenly, I feel like I've got my momentum back. So, you know, it doesn't, doesn't add up into his nicer, simple acronym as the first one. But you know, those are the those are the truthful states, people can move to move from fear to a sense of fear-based action. And yes, I'm still in fog. But that fog can be an air cover for me to become more adaptable.
The thing that gets me out this sense of real stuck, stasis is a sense of connection. So, it's not a perfect model. And it's not what the clients are asking for in terms of bravery, clarity and momentum, but it was it's, it's true. And that's where we began to design, the measures of uncertainty tolerance and something that we saw such significant movements on
Just almost launching off that last point that you made about the fact that there was organisations, clients kind of pushing for something that kind of solved a quite nebulous challenge, I guess to some and they're trying to slap words on it like things like resilience and stuff, because that's quite, you know, trendy at the minute and we can do something about it well you're talking about just reminds me of all those sorts of books that you read about the different parts of the human brain that the, you know, the kind of primitive one that has all those kind of emotive, visceral kind of responses.
And you're, you're kind of talking about that at one level, then you're talking about kind of, like a philosophical approach to life, you know, life is full of moments where there is going to be uncertainty, and this is how we respond and then trying to package it up into something digestible, particularly for organisations who might send people on this course or push people towards it, or an individual might do it. So how did you harness all the skills of all the different types of people you've mentioned in this, you know, that you're going to have to have good documentary makers, right, you're going to have to have really good neuroscientists to give, give it some credibility, you gonna have to have a really good kind of operational delivery of it, if you're going to, you know, people are going to invest in it, and you're going to see results. So how did you combine all those very different skill sets into something like a, you know, a single project, a single product
It was referred to me afterwards that that's a technique called chaos strategy. But what really happened was at the beginning of the year, I was completely confident I was on to something, the meeting, and the partnership, I struck up with Katherine gave me some real confidence and excitement because I began to understand, you know, she, she was the first person that came with it. Okay, if it's fear, fog, and stasis, then, you know, first of all, we have to reduce fear, psychologically, as you just touched on, here's some of the ways you can do that. We need to increase uncertainty tolerance, that begins to push you into a kind of coaching mindset. And then over here, you know, our status, we need to be teach people how to rewrite the future, which takes you into a slightly philosophical stage, oh, my God.
And then the truth of my reality was that I run out of money, I run out of money, and it was really affecting my mental health, I was really feeling deeply paranoid about my role. As a parent, as a father, my ability to provide I was very, very worried that this might affect my very amicable relationship with my ex, who was also going through her own worries, because she's starting her own business. And I just felt like the house of cards was about to come down, I was now into significant debt, and I was adding to that debt. And yet I knew I had this opportunity. And it was like, the sensible, the backward looking narrative, in this moment of uncertainty is that I should go and get a job, and then leverage myself on a well-paid job. But everything that I've just learned, and I'm learning and not just the insight from these remarkable individuals, but now the evidence is backing up is that it's this moment that's going to teach me and through this, I'm going to discover the thing. So, I did some maths, and one of my very, very best friends is a camera filmmaker and creative director.
And he'd been made redundant. And so, we set a deadline, we said the right six weeks from now, we're going to we're gonna have made something. And the best phrase of this was from one of the kind of feedback sessions we'd had someone said, it's more like a documentary than a course. Am I right, I like that. And because it didn't thrill me to think I'm gonna go make an online course. But it thrilled me to think I'm going to make an interactive documentary, like because those don't exist. I mean, they do but there's just like, lots of UGC, like an actual interactive documentary. That's both, you know, there's a psychological intervention. And we said, we gave us off six weeks, and I made a website on Squarespace over one weekend, I called it Uncertainty Experts, the world's first interactive learning documentary proven by science to increase your tolerance to uncertainty. Tickets are on sale now for 99 quid. And there's only 500 of them.
And I worked as hard as I could, by day selling tickets and by night, producing this thing that I would then present live, live. From home against a green screen using a PlayStation controller to edit these bits and pieces together. Oh man, it was the most hectic thing on earth. But three days before it went live, we sold the 500 ticket. And, and that gave me a financial lifeline. It gave me a creative lifeline. It gave me a community of people who were still one year on, it's almost exactly a year on in the most active Whatsapp group, but on my phone getting evidence gave me something to work with it, we ran it against the control group. So that's the basis of the research that you've seen.
So, at that point, and not wanting to set you up for a call from the Advertising Standards Authority. When you say scientifically proven had you at that point, scientifically proven, not wanted to issue like, trigger a series of 99-pound refunds?
Yeah. No, my life has been in marketing. So, you know, future truths are my currency. I think I did just say scientifically proven to tell the truth. Yeah. So, there you go. Because that's what I intended to be.
But it did this is quite an interesting segue, because you have since scientifically proven it, and for me, and when we were talking before this, this interview and sort of doing a bit of a prep and you know I were chatting it just made me think of the relationship that I've got with Ian, on this kind of podcast where typically what happens is, I kind of shoot the breeze and kind of open my mouth and let my thoughts tumble out. And Ian corrects me and puts me on the straight path in terms of academic rigor and, you know, backing up your statements with evidence and all this sort of stuff.
And I did gleefully inform him that for once on this podcast, he's going to be outnumbered by people that like to do what I like to do. But just talk us through as somebody that is more creative with statements, as we've just proven, and that is proven to then subject yourself to this world of academia, which, you know, looking at your abstracts from, from the CIPD, applied research conferences, which is where this this kind of this whole conversation kind of got triggered, Ian and I in terms of what we do on this podcast, so just talk us through your kind of journey into the world of academia, science, journals, papers, peer review, how was it for you?
So back to Dr. Vivian Ming, who gave me such an education. And she, lots of she's got research, right, that spans millions of data points. And she really believes in this notion that the kind of, she's a futurist as well. So, she gets asked all the time, you know, what are the key skills for the future, and people always say, it's going to be like AI and whatever. And her strong argument and she's written a book called How to robot proof your kids is the number one skill. And she went, and she talks about long term life outcomes. And when she does, she means everything from like, earning potential through to like the strength of grip, the skill that we need, and have always needed is our creative ability to deal with the unknown, i.e. uncertainty.
And as we enter into a world of increasing automation, you know, this ability is going to become even more profoundly important. So, she was a wonderful person who, you know, poetically articulated my argument. But when I pushed for like examples of how you do this, one of the key areas that she spoke about was something that she terms is violating your stereotypes. Because, you know, it's hard to identify your stereotypes, because by definition, they're kind of typically subconscious. Although I did learn working with a professor who specializes in biases is the one bias that everybody likes to deny as their own biases. And in understanding what your biases are, you begin to understand the kind of the dark side of who you are, and what are the factors that will hold you back, and also gives a pathway into exploring the unknown, and therefore the opportunity of it.
And I could identify very early on, I have a huge bias around academia. And, and, you know, didn't take me long to then work out well, actually, that's because of my massive impostor syndrome, which is then drawn from my own failures as a real teenager reinforced by dropping out of education. So, then I spent my whole life hating on this particular group, because it identifies a weakness in me. And, and that was a revelatory discovery, just by trying to work out what my stereotypes were so that I could violate them. So, doctrine means advice on nominee releases, mate. So how do you violate a stereotype against academics? Well, you know, you hang out with them, you don't just hang out with them, because I could probably charm of you or them, but you work with them, and then subject yourself to academic rigor.
So, there was a this drive that I didn't want this just to be inspiration. I wanted proof of it. And that it felt to me like the world really needed that. There's, there's this sense in me that if I'm going to learn more, I need to do something that's going to violate my stereotypes and really upend my experience of uncertainty. So, bring the academics in. And then finally, this bigger part of the puzzle. So, I've always been driven to try and do something positive in the world. And I feel like I've had so many interesting ideas and brilliant things. And yet, I feel like if any of them like reach their full global potential, and I had the strong sense of there was something here. And in many of the studies that you look at around uncertainty tolerance, its application is really interesting. So, on one sense, uncertainty is seen as a driver of almost all anxiety disorders. The other senses thing of the site. This report, I already mentioned, the one fear to rule them all. Uncertainty is the Omni fear of humanity. And another report. Looking at political campaigning in Latin America, it was very, very clear that people with a low uncertainty tolerance are more susceptible to extreme recruitment campaigns or polarised politics or fake news. Conspiracy theories, further behavioural workplace studies, which would suggest that people with a low uncertainty tolerance are less likely to speak their mind are more likely to be swayed by the oldest whitest male in the room.
And so, you began to see like, okay and organisational level at a societal level, internally at an anxiety level, uncertainty tolerance as much as now I've identified it's like a meta threat. It's also a meta opportunity because my realisation that the big things that would be more I thought I couldn't quite get the kind of people to the anxiety of the epidemic of anxiety that world faces this kind of shadow epidemic, if you will, the obvious. I mean, the great uncertainties that we face, none of which, by the way, are uncertain. And it's our cognitive dissonance to them. It's our ability to go oh, right. Okay, that is something's going to happen in my world, and what am I going to do around it? And suddenly, in uncertainty tolerance, you've got the beginning of an answer.
Because individuals are going to be less anxious, they're going to make better decisions, they're going to be more able to sit with people they disagree with, which then means communities. And the answer to all of these challenges is going to have an aspect of community communities will come together. With less disagreement, you're more likely to resolve conflicts because you're more able to sit with ambiguity and greater open mindedness. That's what uncertainty tolerance means. And then if you ladder that all the way up to the tops of organisations who are currently expected to make significant investments in technologies that don't exist yet to meet targets that have already been missed, I mean, that's the brief to go net positive.
You don't do that by being brave a leader, you know that that is you have to believe that going into the unknown will be good for you. And in then in that space, that uncertainty can become some kind of technology or tool for exploring possibility that we currently can't see. And so, I got started to get really excited. And I knew I have before in my life got very excited that this is the answer. That's the answer. And I knew that on my own, my enthusiasm will go so far, my usage of future truths will get me so far. But this time it had to have evidence to. So that was the final part of okay, right, I'm going to subject this to a degree of rigor that, you know, nothing else in my life has ever had.
-- Reflection Section –
There you go. Now, unfortunately, listeners, we have no James again. Now I've heard that they were so impressed with his dry-stone walling that the Lake District National Park Authority has commissioned him to repair some of their flagship properties that we're currently negotiating with his agent to get a firm commitment on his presence in next week's episode. But things are up in the air as we speak. But instead, we now have the chance for Ian in very simple words, for someone like me to talk me through the research project that Sam alluded to and explore it in more depth. And to kick us off Ian one word that kind of struck me as something that's worth exploring, is the word proven. Now, what is proof? How would you define proof?
Okay, so as always, it's nice to just quickly turn to a dictionary at this point to get us started. So quick sentence proof is evidence or argument establishing a fact, or the truth. So, proof is definitely linked to truth, right, Chris? But as we know, in our current world, society, culture, all of that stuff, this this, this notion of truth has become very malleable recently, you know, we need to think about stuff like fake news. And we know just how challenging these discussions can get, I think it's safe to say that when it comes to science and research generally, and workplace research, specifically, this whole nature of truth, and proof is really relevant. And I don't know whether you realise this or not, but there's actually a really big old academic discussion sat right here. And it's quite a feisty discussion at that. And it's been raging for literally decades about the ways you can prove or disprove things, in order to be able to get at the truth, so to speak, when it comes particularly to stuff that involves people.
And this is where the social sciences comes from, right. Some academic tribes believe that you've got to rigidly and strictly apply the sort of same scientific methods as those that you apply to the natural sciences. So, things like chemistry and physics and geology, so, so on, but other tribes contest that isn't even possible, because humans, they're not like rocks, right? They've got agency, and they make sense of the world that they live in. And humans, as scientists doing the studies have to work really, really hard to demonstrate that they're even neutral about the thing that they're interested in researching. And personally, I'm not even sure that's possible. So, you can tell that I find this dead fascinating. And it's why I enjoy teaching research methods, because it probably makes your header in a good way. But what we've got to do is we got to really dig into philosophy to get to the bottom of this stuff. And in all honesty, there are sort of no right answers. There are only different perspectives to take.
So, apply that to what we've just spoken about with Sam then how does that apply to what he was doing and, and some of the things that he was trying to prove with Uncertainty Experts?
Well, I think if you go to the kind of the closing part of our discussion where you picked up on that phrase, scientifically proven, and we had a little bit of a sort of a laugh and a joke about it, and Sam talked about the fact that, you know, marketers deal in future truths, if you like. I think that there's probably a more generous way to take this and think about it. So, when Sam was designing and building his learning documentary Uncertainty Experts, the program that he was designing to be different. If you think about it, he was sort of iterating, he was moving between three things.
One was the experiences of his so-called Uncertainty Experts, the stars of his documentaries, if you like. Now, what he was doing with them is he was essentially digging into their life histories. And life histories are a valid type of qualitative research. It's one approach that some very specific researchers tend to take. But what he was also doing, he was drawing on the wider academic work of and theories about uncertainty from a whole bunch of different academic fields. And what he was doing is, as he was working between the two of those, the new insights, he was developing work coming out of his own sense making between the two. And we call this you know, iterative insights, which when you're trying to make sense of really tricky, rich data, that's what you need to do.
If I play that back, it's kind of I'm going to go and research something that I'm really interested in. And I'm going to talk to lots of people about it. And they're going to see what other academics have done peer reviewed stuff and bring that in. But I need to somehow turn that into something that I can apply to my specific idea to my specific context, and go right here, we've actually looked at this. So, is this where he's saying, I have evidence, I kind of historically have evidence, but now I want to prove it with a degree of rigor he talks about, I'm going to subject this to a degree of rigor, is that what we're talking about?
Yeah, I think so. And I think this is us now into this different type of proof. So, if the initial approach was about theoretical, conceptual proof, then what he sets about doing with Dr. Avrti Bilovich is actually about empirical proof through an empirical proof is about observation and experience, not just about theory, and we really ought to recognise the difference, because there's two types of proof at work here. And, and that I think that's what makes this so interesting and powerful, these two different levels
I find the whole thing interesting as well, because it gets you into that thing you were saying about truth and proof. And because I think you mentioned rocks and stuff, like my understanding of science was could we apply this test multiple times and get the same result. And you know, each time we do something like gravity, right, I dropped this apple, it goes at this speed lands here. And every time we do it, it does the same thing. Therefore, this is this is fact, it can't be argued with this fact. But the problem with people is, like you say they have agency, so things change.
There's so many variables at play, like what sort of mourning have they had on the way to the test, and, you know, what's happened in their life and what's been on the news and what's influenced them, that would change things, and it got me thinking as well, part of the challenge is, you've got to be very, very honest about what you're actually proving, you know, we have proven that these sorts of people in these sorts of circumstances tend to do this. Whereas I think, you know, someone that's come from a PR background, we're quite keen to talk about things in absolutes, you know, 98% of people do this, say that have done this, whereas actually, the truth of the matter is, at the moment, we asked them, they applied, they answered like this. They might, they might answer differently tomorrow. And that's, but that's complicated and not very snazzy.
Yeah, you're absolutely right. And what you touched on at the beginning of that sort of reflection was one of the sort of gold standards, if you like, of rigorous robust scientific research, it's that if you gave the instruction book of what you've just done in this study to somebody else, and they did exactly the same thing, they ought to be able to get exactly the same outcomes. But when you get people involved, you can there's a big old debate about whether that's even possible. And this is this is kind of what I was alluding to earlier, there's this war, this war of different academic tribes believing in different stuff.
And if one person responds in one way, does that mean that another person would respond in a different way? And so yeah, that's what this is all about. And the more you dig, the more you realise it's an incredibly tricky thing to answer. But the more you realise how important it is with the world we live in, with everybody claiming statistics about this and facts about that. And you really need to understand not just the surface stuff, but also the ideas that are sat underneath them, which are making them work in thinking in particular ways.
Okay, so with all of that considered, with all of that kind of challenge in the background as a backdrop, let's look at specifically what Dr. Bilovich and Sam set about doing for this project for the uncertainty expert. So, talk me through what they did, and maybe let's hypothesise why they might have done it and all the rest of it. Let's look at what they did as an actual research project.
Okay, right. So, the point of the research said simply does Uncertainty Experts make a difference? So, this interactive documentary as an intervention for the people experiencing it, does it make a difference to them. So, what they recognised is that there's an opportunity here for what's called a field study. So, a field study is not a study in a field, it's a study in a natural location rather than in a laboratory. So, we're not talking about, you know, scientists in lab coats looking at mice and rats in a maze in a laboratory we're talking about this is this is natural stuff, right? People sat experiencing this documentary in their own surroundings. And then what happens is consequence.
So, they recruited a bunch of people to be part of this study 289 of them. And what they did is they randomly assigned them to one of two groups. Now, randomly assigning is important, because that gives you the ability to be able to claim that, you know, you controlled for, it's not that one type of person was more likely to do one thing than another, you made it random, you randomise the sample if you like. So, these two groups, you got an intervention group, these were the people who received the Uncertainty Experts experience. And then you've got a control group. And these people received a different intervention. And it was a workshop on storytelling. So, they received something. But it wasn't Uncertainty Experts.
Now, it's really important, you've got a control group, because you need to be able to provide a baseline against which to compare your outcomes. So that big question, does Uncertainty Experts make a difference? In order to answer that, they declared three research questions, questions which they were then able to design their study, to be able to answer. So, they want to basically prove or disprove these three things. So, the first research question was, did the intervention increase people's positive affective reactions towards uncertainty? And conversely, does it decrease negative affective reactions?
The second research question was, did the intervention result in an increase in self efficacy? And the third research question was, did the intervention result in a reduction of participants need for cognitive closure? Now, there are some quite fancy words in there. So quite academic key words. And that's because those specific research questions are linked to theories and models within the field of uncertainty research, if you like that would allow you to be able to test that. But remember, the big banner is we're asking these questions, because we want to identify whether Uncertainty Experts makes a difference. So, what they then did was they undertook a survey, which incorporated several different tests, which link to these research questions to enable them to answer them. And they needed to be able to ask questions both before and after to be able to measure impact, if you like. And as well as kind of gathering lots of numerical quantitative data here. They also gather qualitative data about people's experiences.
Going back to your three kind of stages of the research that you talked about initially, I guess what we're saying here is that there was a kind of, there's the big idea like this, this program is going to make a difference, right? And that's kind of the initial hunch that there's this thing called uncertainty and we can we can increase people's tolerance. So, we need to test that. That's our headline here. But what I'm getting from the three research questions, is it in a way?
There's an element of answering that question, but the way, those are designed in the academic words, you talked about that, at least in come from that second part you describe, which is the literature review. So, we understand that that uncertainty is built up in by these parts, and that that part can be measured by this. And this is a way of measuring that. So, what they're doing is they're borrowing ideas from already applied kind of ideas and theories and research methods and building it into a series of tests and checks that will answer the exam question.
Yeah, that's exactly I would say applying ideas, applying models and tools rather than borrowing. But yeah, it's exactly that. Chris
Tell us a bit about the findings. And what did they find?
So basically, it was a very successful study, they got positive outcomes for research, question one, and research question two, and they didn't get a positive outcome or a significant outcome for research. Question three. So, taken together, these results indicate that there's a real measurable benefit to the Uncertainty Experts as an intervention. Participants in the intervention group reported feeling more positively towards uncertainty, both specifically about particular things they were wrestling with there, and then but also generally about their view of uncertainty with, you know, with a view to the rest of their lives and the world more broadly, and stuff like that.
They were also more likely to take risks in an uncertain scenario, which indicates a change in behaviour, rather than just a change in attitudes. And, you know, when you look at that sentence by itself, they were also more likely to take risks and in uncertain scenario, it kind of our gut feeling is to go, is that a good thing? But if you turn back to Sam's discussion, it was, you know, the idea that if we get stuck in set ways of responding, it limits us our ability to do anything creatively, anything differently. So, there's a, you know, a really powerful finding there. And another thing worth noting is a follow up after six weeks confirmed that these changes had stuck for the group that experienced Uncertainty Experts, but it hadn't stuck for the control group. So basically, a very positive outcome in terms of testing the efficacy of Uncertainty Experts. Do you like how I explained that?
No, it makes sense. And as someone who's perhaps in the past written stuff with absolute certainty, it's kind of it's quite exhilarating to think about, actually having the opportunity to lean back to say, actually, this is really does make a difference. And I think what we've shown here, there is definitely a benefit to taking the approach if you know, Sam didn't describe it as incredibly planned, I think he talked about chaos strategy and, and just sort of piling through and happening almost as a happy accident in a way.
But actually, there's something we can learn from this, which is it's okay to have a hot take is totally okay to have a hot take. There. They are, what drive ideas and drive innovation. But then take a step back and look into your hot take, has anyone else written about it? If they have, what have they written about? And what Sam found was that not many people have looked at it through the specific lens that he wanted to look at it through. So great, we've got something we can play with here. But we use that research work not just to go there's an idea, let's crack on actually, that research work continues to have a benefit, because these very learned people thought of ways of measuring aspects of it. And we can test that to see if we do make a difference. It does our hot take it as hot as we think it is. So, I think that's a it's a very nice lesson for us to package up for our listeners. And perhaps with the amount of workplace change going on at the minute, they can take some of that and apply it to some of their own projects. So, there you go. So, thank you very much, Ian.
-- Outro –
Right. So that brings us to the end of this episode. So as promised, Sam and the team have given us a link to their workshop and you wonderful listeners will get 20% off the Uncertainty Experts course, if you use the code geeks, which is a lovely, there's our first discount code. And I'm delighted to say that they have embraced the geek so yes, you can get 20% off Uncertainty Experts if you use a geek discount code the link but for which will be in the show notes. Just another reminder to get in touch with Ian and I would love to hear from you about your thoughts on some of the episodes some examples of things that you've applied because we really want to know this is making a difference. We want to know the efficacy of people listening to this podcast, and but also any suggestions or ideas that you've got for what we can cover in the future. So, remember, you can find us on LinkedIn in searching for Workplace Geeks. You can talk about us using #workplacegeeks and of course you can email us at email@example.com So that is all for now. We will speak to you next time.