How I Learned to Embrace Uncertainty: Tips for Product Managers

Jim Semick
Co-founder, Board Member at ProductPlan


I’ll admit it, in the past, I’ve wrestled with needing to control uncertainty.

For years I thoroughly planned most everything and felt the need to know the eventual outcome of decisions. I had expectations, and if the expectations weren’t met, I was disappointed.

Whether it was a product I managed or a vacation I took, I wanted to control the inevitable uncertainty.

Uncertainty is uncomfortable.

As a result, I found myself with a lingering sense that things were out of control. As a product manager, the uncertainty manifested in really detailed and lengthy Product Requirements Documents. I know I’m not the only product manager with this challenge.

Over the years, I’ve realized through observation and personal experience that the most successful and happy people are those who are willing to embrace uncertainty. They are the ones who make “risky” decisions without knowing 100% of the information. It’s especially true for product managers, entrepreneurs, and others who want to launch products or ideas.

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I’m much better now about letting things unfold without needing to know how the plan eventually will materialize. And yes, I get the irony that I’m the co-founder of ProductPlan, software that helps product managers visualize their plan. More on that later.

The Psychology of Uncertainty

The fear we all feel from uncertainty – and the feeling that we can control it – can cloud our thinking. After all, research consistently shows that humans are wired for seeking comfort, safety, and loss aversion. Our inner cave-person wants to avoid getting eaten by the tiger.

A couple of years ago, our team read the fantastic book Thinking, Fast and Slow by Daniel Kahneman, a Nobel Prize Winner in Economics. His research demonstrated that we choose options to avoid loss. We don’t behave logically when presented with the same choice framed in different ways.

In one example from the book, a disease that kills 1,286 people out of every 10,000 is considered more dangerous than a disease that kills 24.14% of the population. In studies, we believe the first disease to be more threatening even though the actual risk is significantly less than the alternative.

We also tend to overestimate our ability to control events – and this feeling that we can control a situation is an illusion. If we can stop for a moment and change our thinking that we’re not in as much control as we think, and surrender to it, we’re more likely to succeed because we’re open to change and opportunities we wouldn’t see otherwise.

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I’m not saying that we never need to plan. I think two ways of living can co-exist – it’s possible to have outcomes-based goals and, at the same time, take decisive action without knowing the exact path with certainty.

And I’ll add that it’s a lot more fun to work once I learned to live with the uncertainty.

Lessons for Product Managers

I think there are many lessons for product managers in this philosophy. Here are a few thoughts for how product managers – especially those in an agile development environment – can embrace uncertainty and live with the inevitable discomfort. Hopefully, these ideas will help you focus on what matters.

Make decisions based on outcomes

One way to live with uncertainty is to relax about the exact plan, and instead make decisions based on an outcome-driven goal. For example, rather than creating a list of arbitrary and disconnected features for your product, instead, focus on what your desired outcome is for customers – what is the goal you want them to achieve?

By focusing on an outcome-driven roadmap, you (and your team) have room to think about new possibilities, about different ways of achieving the goal.

Focus on today (and maybe a few sprints out)

There’s an expectation of product managers to spell out the vision for our products and what the product looks like one or two years down the road.

But it’s problematic if this planning is too detailed. One or two years out any plan is only a fantasy. There’s no way things will go exactly to plan, and the goalpost will probably change along the way. You’ll never achieve perfection. This detailed planning, unfortunately, sets an expectation in your head (and your stakeholders’ heads) that simply won’t come true. It sets up everyone for disappointment.

My advice: Don’t plan too far ahead. Focus on the big picture vision in broad terms. Then, focus on what is in your control today to meet that vision. For your product planning, a few sprints out are far enough.

Get comfortable with the discomfort

Stop spending as much time dwelling on problems at work and what-if thinking. You’re causing stress, which will affect you in all areas of your life. Spend more time working to solve the problems your customers are facing. Those are the fun problems.

For all the worst-case-scenario planners out there… cut the negative thinking. Why worry about all the endless gloomy scenarios that your (fearful) mind can conjure up? Plus, I believe that if you expect the worst, you’ll put yourself in a position of being close-minded to recognize new options and opportunities.

I’m not saying that you should avoid realistic contingency planning, but truly, the five percent chance of a worst-case-scenario is unlikely to unfold. Spend your brainpower toward an optimistic outcome. Positive thinking really does affect. And your nights will be more restful.

Embrace confrontation

Another tip: Embrace confrontation. Stop avoiding the conversations you know you need to be having. I’m not saying to pick fights, but rather address conversations directly. Rather than avoiding conflict, micromanaging, or trying to prove someone wrong (controlling), have an honest upfront conversation about the situation.

Incorporate stress reduction daily

The last bit of advice on another way I’ve found to embrace uncertainty at work and in life: give myself time for exercise and other mindfulness practices daily. I’m finding that when I prioritize this above other items, the rest of my day (life?) is happier, even when I get thrown a curveball I hadn’t expected.


In the end, will you be a product manager who embraces uncertainty or one who plays it safe and avoids unpredictability? While it’s not a guarantee of success, I think I know which one stands a better chance.

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