Controlling the controllables to decouple uncertainty and stress

Posted By - Geoff Watts


This post might feel like a bit of a ramble compared to normal so bear with me as it does have a point, trust me.

I also have something I would like to get your thoughts on later on

It’s a world full of uncertainty and stress

It’s a funny old world out there right now and I’m not just talking about the world of agile, or the world of work but the world in general. A lot of people have been coming to speak to me at conferences or online and telling me of all sorts of challenges and anxieties.

From layoffs to the uncertain threat of AI to the question of whether “agile is dead” and what that means for us. And I hear them. I really do. I can totally relate to those thoughts.

In my role as a coach I often talk to people about the unsettling nature of working in uncertainty and ambiguity. It’s challenging and yet in our environments this is almost the only certainty we have…that there is uncertainty. And that is where agility is essential.

The Sword of Damocles

One of my favourite studies around uncertainty and stress showed that people tend to prefer physical pain over uncertainty about whether pain might materialise.

Given the choice between certain pain and the possibility of pain PEOPLE CHOOSE PAIN.

So when we can find certainty, that really helps. And this is why things like Scrum helped massively when teams started trying to embrace the uncertainty of an agile environment. While we were accepting that we will not know what the requirements are, often until we’ve finished (multiple iterations in many cases) there are some things we can be certain of.

We can be certain that we will have a 15 minute meeting every day, at the same time, with the same people. We can be certain that we will have a retrospective every couple of weeks, on the same cadence with the same goal (to reflect, learn and improve).

This certainty eased the anxiety associated with operating in the inherent uncertainty of the complex domain of software and/or product development.

Agile is not the goal

This brings to mind another important point. Being agile has never been the goal. And scaling agile certainly shouldn’t ever be the goal.

Because no organisation is ever going to find themselves in a situation where all of their work requires an agile approach. There will always be some things that are predictable, that are repeatable. And those things don’t need experimentation, they don’t need cross-functional, autonomous teams iterating with customers to figure things out.

Those things can be standardised, planned out, automated and an agile approach isn’t the right thing for that. Some things have known unknowns and so we can work things out with enough expertise and experience and analysis. In those situations experimentation is waste.

So I talk to people, teams and organisations about contextual coherence. Having a predictable way of working out the level of complexity and a way of acting based on the levels of complexity is a good way of dealing with the inevitable complexities of modern business.

Controlling the Controllables

Now bear with me here as this might feel like it’s getting a little weird…

A friend of mine recently reminded of the Serenity Prayer and it kind of reminded me of our approach to work in a complex environment. For those of you that might not know what this is, here’s the start of it (and the most relevant part for what I’m talking about):

Control the controllables

God grant me the serenity

to accept the things I cannot change; 

courage to change the things I can; 

and wisdom to know the difference.

I’m not having a religious enlightenment don’t worry but I am doubling down on my efforts to let go of the things I cannot change while focusing on what I can.

As well as the learning Pathways I’ve created here at Agile Mastery Institute I’m going to try a few new things…experiments if you will…and I would like to invite you to join me in them. At the very least by providing me with your thoughts on them…

Micro Learning – your help required

Can you help me decouple uncertainty and stress?

One experiment I am going to run is in many ways the opposite to the long-term learning Pathways and offer “micro-learning” in the form of multiple, short, skills-based, targeted workshops. Things like influencing skills, facilitation skills, product discovery, conflict navigation etc

I have so many topics that I could run workshops on though so I want to find out what people are interested in developing their skills in so I have a short poll I would like to invite you to participate in.


This poll contains a number of potential workshops I could run over a 75 minute period online for a relatively small fee. If I have enough interest then I will schedule some of them. I have other ideas for potentially linking them up into a sort of ‘a la carte’ Mastery Pathway but, for now they will be standalone.

So control the controllables and click the link above 🙂


  • Uncertainty causes stress
  • Agile approaches are inherently tied to situations of uncertainty
  • Not everything is uncertain so simplify what you can but nothing more
  • Controlling the controllables can help reduce stress associated with uncertainty
  • I am running an experiment into micro-learning and would value your feedback


Share this article

Blog Categories