Holding the bag … of uncertainty

Every entrepreneurial project has a large degree of uncertainty that cannot be eliminated. The inability to foresee not only the outcomes of our actions, but also the consequences of those outcomes, and the meaning of those consequences represents an irreducible tension. The more we commit to one particular unfolding of the events ahead – with all the elation this brings – the heavier the counterweight bag containing doubt and the possibility of being wrong. Commitment comes with baggage. When the two move together, the baggage is a constant reminder of the need to focus on learning and to maintain flexibility to change direction.

Something interesting happens in organizations: commitment and baggage get separated. Unhitched, the commitment slowly rises upwards, ultimately bringing certainty to the top management. In the meantime, the bag is left behind and sinks, leaving the uncertainty with middle managers or front liners. No matter how hard they try, they are left holding the bag…

[Left holding the bag: being in a situation where you are responsible for something, because others fail to take responsibility for it (Collins English Dictionary)]

As uncertainty travels downwards, accountability travels upwards, defined by the expectations from the top. These arise from the certainty of received commitments about the impact of entrepreneurial initiatives. At that point, the bag of uncertainty has already vanished – the multitude of possibilities have collapsed onto the single path of history. This, in turn, cements the original commitment as a viable reference point and triggers a search for points of blame.

If only uncertainty and accountability could travel in the same direction. When the bag of uncertainty is held at the top, those who work on entrepreneurial initiatives no longer feel the pressure of being left with it. It also changes the focal point of accountability from what we did not achieve to what we did learn. When commitment and bag are held together, there is recognition at the top that the commitment is necessary to structure our action, but also that this structure is always tentative.

To avoid the anarchy of complete lack of accountability, there needs to be a clear labeling for the bags to indicate which go upwards (accountability) and which stay down (incompetence).