Letting Go Of The Illusion Of Control

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This post is part of a series of newsletters was originally written for Katerva, an NGO dedicated to the identification, evaluation and acceleration of disruptive sustainable innovation; it was first published 9th December 2019.

In our six part series we are looking at mindset shifts that are necessary if we are serious about moving towards sustainability. The first shift was about moving from linear to systemic thinking. The second shift, letting go of control, is sharing some of the same roots: both linear thinking and a sense of control aim to minimise perceived uncertainty.


What is the shift required?

The request to let go of control might sound outlandish at first, particularly in the context of business, but it is a topic that has been picked up by Fast Company, Forbes, and the Harvard Business Publishing Corporate Learning blog.

Gary Hamel, who has been pushing management thinking since the 90s, argues that much of what managers perceive to be a measure of control is, in the end, often only a consequence of their position of power. He invites mangers, and leaders, to imagine themselves without a title, budget or ability to impose sanctions. He then asks: how much could you get done now? Listen to his own words below.

The concepts of being in control and having power are closely linked – which will make it only more difficult to embrace the concept of letting go of control. Some more thoughts on leaders and the challenge of giving up control are shared by philosopher, activist and thinker Margaret Wheatley in her conversation with Gagen MacDonald.

Technological progress is nurturing our sense of being in control. Indeed, through technology we can control our environment, e.g. through air-conditioning and heating; we overcome nature’s limitation on what kind of food is available, and when, e.g. through greenhouses and by flying food around the globe; we overcome the limitations of the human body, be it by using cars and aeroplanes to extend our range of movement, or glasses, microscopes and telescopes to extend what we can see; we conquer space. The further we go back in time though, the less doubt there would have been that we are not in control, but part of a system that has its own dynamic and rules that are beyond our reach, and which we do well to respect; volcano outbreaks, wildfires, and increasingly frequent and severe storms and floods show us the limits of our control.
Widespread acceptance that we operate in a VUCA (volatile, uncertain, complex, ambiguous) context that has been both facilitated and accelerated by the virtuous cycle of globalisation and digitalisation, has brought concepts such as adaptability and emergence (back) onto the agenda.

Why isn’t it happening?

Perhaps it is the belief that we ought to be in control, like the antiquated belief that leaders have to know all the answers, that prevents us from embracing the concept of emergency, ie allowing things to enfold rather than planning them?  Perhaps giving up control is seen as a personal failure and embarrassment, a loss of face?

Whether that might be the case or not, there are two patterns of behaviour at play here that most of us are not consciously aware of:

  1. When we feel that we are losing control we generally try even harder to retain it. To paraphrase from the afore mentioned conversationbetween Margaret Wheatley and Gagen MacDonald, “In times of crises and uncertainty leaders, rather than expand the circle of advisors to ensure they get all signals and information that might help resolve the situation, fall back on their closest circle. They assume that they need to take tighter and tighter control. Rather than resolving the chaos and crisis, what actually happens is that they create more crisis and chaos.”
  2. When we are stressed, afraid, confused, our most likely response is to revert to what we know, and what has worked for us in the past. To quote an anonymous Navy seal – a special forces unit in the U.S. Navy: “Under pressure, you don’t rise to the occasion, you sink to the level of your training. That’s why we train so hard.”

Is it the same for everyone?

At a national level, it is indeed not the same for everyone. The ‘Uncertainty Avoidance Index’ (UAI) is one of Hofstede’s six dimensions along which national cultures can be understood and differentiated.  He explains this dimension as follows, “It expresses the degree to which the members of a society feel uncomfortable with uncertainty and ambiguity. The fundamental issue here is how a society deals with the fact that the future can never be known: should we try to control the future or just let it happen? Countries exhibiting strong UAI maintain rigid codes of belief and behaviour, and are intolerant of unorthodox behaviour and ideas. Weak UAI societies maintain a more relaxed attitude in which practice counts more than principles.”

Geert Hofstede introduces the Uncertainty Avoidence Index

Below a world map that show where different countries are with the attitude towards uncertainty avoidance.

You can compare up to four countries across Hofstede’s dimensions here; below a few examples as well as the world at a glance.

What can be done about it?

“The quality of your life is in direct proportion to the amount of uncertainty you can comfortably deal with.”

Tony Robbins, American author, philanthropist, and life coach


As a first step, we might want to become aware of two patterns of behaviour pointed out earlier: that in times of uncertainty we try to hold on tighter to control rather than letting go, and the fact that we tend to revert to what has worked in the past.  In both instances it would serve us much better to follow the wisdom of Genevan philosopher, writer and composer Jean Jacques Rousseau (1712-1778) who advises, “Take the course opposite to custom and you will almost always do well.”

What is required to thrive in today’s world is not control but adaptability, agility, flexibility – at least as the overarching mindset and attitude. Of course, it is also not as black and white as that, and while the context of the 21st century is generally more complex than anything we have experienced before, this level of complexity does not apply to all context nor all situations.

For understanding when to let go of control and allow emergence, the Cynefin Framework, created by Dave Snowden in 1999 while working at IBM Global Services, is helpful. It allows us to make sense and understand what kind of context we are facing, and therefore what the most appropriate response / approach would be. Snowden points out that it is a sense making framework, not a categorisation model, explaining that with the former data precedes the framework, with the later the framework precedes the data.

Depending on the context you are facing, a different approach to seeking a solution is most appropriate:

  • In the ‘Simple’ or ‘Obvious’ quadrant rules are in place, there is a clear causal relationship, i.e. when I do ‘X’ I can expect ‘Y’ to happen. In such a situation it is advisable to “sense–categorise–respond”, i.e. establish the facts (“sense”), categorise, then respond by following the rule or applying best practice.
  • In the ‘Complicated’ quadrant the relationship between cause and effect requires analysis or expertise and there is a range of appropriate answers. In such a situation it is advisable to “sense–analyse–respond”, i.e. assess the facts, analyse, and apply the appropriate good practice.
  • In the ‘Complex’ quadrant, cause and effect can only be deduced in retrospect, and there are no right answers. Here it is advisable to take a “probe–sense–respond” approach, meaning that it is best to be patient, look for patterns to emerge, and allow a solution to emerge – emergent practice.
  • In the ‘Chaotic’ quadrant cause and effect are unclear. Here an approach of “act–sense–respond” is most appropriate, i.e. act to establish order; sense where stability lies; respond to turn the chaotic into the complex – novel practice.

Snowden points out that all of us have a tendency to have a default ‘box’, i.e. a particular approach we apply, regardless of the specific situation, therefore often responding inappropriately, given the context.

You can watch Snowden explain the model in the video below, read a concise summary of the framework here, and read more about how leaders can use this framework for decision making in this Harvard Business Review article.

The Cynefin Framework
Dave Snowden explaining the Cynefin Framework
We should also ask ourselves the following two questions:

  1. What is it that I can truly control?
  2. What am I afraid of / what is the worst that can happen?

Firstly, if we are honest with ourselves, it is only our own actions, reactions and choices that are under our control – and even these are often driven by what is hard-wired into us as human beings, and conditioned by our experiences and beliefs.

Given this, and the overall level of complexity we are facing, it is not surprising that the concepts of mindfulness and meditation have taken such hold and are being embraced by the world of business. For example, Search Inside Yourself (SIY) is a program building on insights from neuroscience, originally developed by leading experts at Google. Since 2012, SIY operates as an independent organisation, and its programs have been attended by over 50,000 people around the globe. Impact and insights from their journey are captures in their latest Impact report.

Secondly, the only point in time where we can truly exert our (limited) influence, which is perhaps  a better term than ‘control’, is the here and now. Definitely not the past, and only to a limited extent the future. Even in the present, the degree to which we can influence things depends, as explored and explained through the Cynefin framework, on the specific context in which we find ourselves. Regardless, a shift from control to emergence is only possible if we are able to be present in the moment.

Concerning the second question, in our daily lives, there are not many situations where a ‘life or death’ outcome underlies our fear. More likely it is caused by concerns about being embarrassed, losing face, losing respect, or confirming our fears that we are not enough. In order to counter such fears – in ourselves and others – it requires us to acknowledge and embrace these fears first, and then understand their origins, so we can consciously counterbalance them.

Truly internalising the serenity prayer might have the same effect:

Have the serenity to accept the things you cannot change,

Have the courage to change the things you can change,

Have the wisdom to know the difference.


Who is already doing it?

Here a few examples from Katerva’s nominee pool:

  • SolarGaps – window blinds that automatically tracks the sun and generate electricity.
  • Predict and Beat Dengue – an app that predicts dengue fever outbreaks, read more here.
  • AirFabric™ by Insyab – offers a seamless connectivity layer that allows drones, terrestrial robots, and human agents to effectively cooperate in executing a common task; where real time information matters.
  • Apple’s adjustable watch strap – while this example is not directly relevant to the context of sustainability, it is representative of the trend of making things reactive to specific contexts.


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