The paving slab of certainty – The downside of well ingrained commuting habits

I’ve been commuting into London on a regular basis now for around 4 years. Despite occasional delays and frustrations I do actually enjoy it. I get to read different books, get to see different people, get to visit different places and the very nature of a big city such as London means that something unexpected or unusual is normally going on. As somebody interested in people, novelty and creativity it is a wonderful experience. However, something about my commuting experience bothers me and I feel the need to confess…if I am so welcoming of change and difference….why then do I stand at the SAME place on the train platform, get on the SAME carriage and seek out the SAME seat every morning? (My secret commuter tactic here is to stand on a particular paving slab that I have learnt normally aligns exactly with the first set of train doors nearest the seat that is normally empty. I like to think of this as the ‘slab of certainty’!)

I know I’m not alone here as I see the majority of other commuters exhibit similar behaviour. It is somewhat Pavlovian in nature as our brain seems to tell us “If we stand here, then the doors will be right in front of us” or “We can get on first an get a seat!” or “This carriage is far less crowded than the others” or “If I get on here then I will be in the right position for the exit when I get off” (Imagine all of that said with the tonality and facial expression of an overly keen Labrador waiting for a treat!)

These benefits may be true most of the time but I have also seen and experienced the somewhat ridiculous panic if something changes even just a little. Commuters can be sent into high anxiety states if a train brakes slightly too early or too late and the doors are not in their usual alignment with the platform. I’ve seen commuters stare with a real hatred and jealousy in their eyes if somebody ‘new’ is standing in their place on the platform or even worse…sitting in their usual seat. I recall one time, the front set of doors on a packed Waterloo & City tube train failed to open and people looked ashen saying to each other “What are we going to do?” as if they were trapped 20,000 leagues under the sea! (For those who don’t live in London – the W&C line only has two stops so it isn’t like the train is going to dash off anywhere until everybody has had time to disembark.)

It seems to me that myself and others want our commute to be unsurprising, predictable and without incident. There is nothing wrong with this and I recognise it in myself as coming from a desire to be in a place of safe certainty – a position where I feel that I know what is going to happen and I know what to do when it does happen. In order to maintain this position of safe certainty I need to say “no” to possibility, novelty and difference and I am usually rewarded with a seat, an uncrowded carriage or simply not having to think and improvise so early in the morning or late in the evening.


During my commute, I perceive the alternative of this predictable, controllable norm is a place of unsafe uncertainty – a position where I would feel I have no idea what is going to happen and wouldn’t know what to do when it did happen! Whilst a place of unsafe uncertainty is a little appealing due to the novelty it would bring, my norm of safe certainty is the lesser of two evils and I have decided that it is better to sacrifice the possibility of adventure in favour of making it more likely that I will get a seat.

This is a ridiculous scenario as I think about it – the risks here are so incredibly low and the worst that could happen is that I would have to stand or be a bit squashed for 28 minutes. I realise that, what I have done with regard to my commute is EXACTLY what I strive to warn others of in my coaching and change work – our human habit of giving up possibility and opportunity in favour of certainty and predictability in a way that keeps everything rather ‘stuck’.

If I were to practice what I preach I would tell myself that there is a sweet-spot between the two extremes I perceive – a place of safe uncertainty. A place where I wouldn’t always know what was going to happen but in which I can still assure myself that I’m protected from major risk. Safe uncertainty is the fertile ground where creativity, innovation, adventure and change can grow and flourish.

In personal and organisation development terms, safe uncertainty is about having just enough structure, just enough control and just enough governance to mitigate the biggest risks but leaving enough fluidity, spontaneity and freedom to welcome in new possibilities. A culture of safe uncertainty is one where folk are encouraged, within negotiated parameters, to try something new and if it doesn’t work to then fail happy and learn from the experience. A team who are comfortable with safe uncertainty are good-enough at predicting and planning but absolutely bloody masterful at adapting and improvising. Individuals who live their lives from a place of safe uncertainty are able to have wild adventures, learn new skills and develop new talents whilst being able to find novel ways of continuing to pay the mortgage, bringing up kids, leading an active social life, not dying through misadventure (etc).

Where you position yourself on this makeshift matrix is up to you personally. No position is right and no position is wrong (it is only a model after all!)   However, if you are seeking novelty, adventure and change but finding yourself maintaining the status quo in the bottom left hand corner then you may need to ask yourself  ‘what am I prepared to let go of?‘ what are the small, modest experiments I can undertake knowing that I could live with the consequences if they go totally wrong?

If like me you are a commuter it seems that a good start point is to tinker with your habitual patterns to give yourself a real experience of safe uncertainty. Walk a different route. Sit on a different carriage. Get a bus instead of a train. I have to admit that , even though I’m happy to take big risks with most things in my working life, the thought of standing at the other end of the platform tomorrow morning still makes me feel rather anxious – how silly!

  1. Kathleen King says:

    Hi Steve, well this one really did resonate, although I must confess that the joy of the commute ledt me a while ago together with the chance of getting on the first few trains, let alone getting a seat! I just also wanted to honour Barry Mason, who was actually the chap who coined the labels safe and unsafe certainty/uncertainty, which were then smartly applied by Critchley and Vanstone onto a Stacey model…

    1. Hi Kathleen. Thanks for your comment, I like the fact that commute stories seem to resonate with a number of people. Is a fascinating thing to observe – I’m always interested how the power/status dynamics change for folk who are really senior in the office but become just another human being when on the tube! Thanks too for highlighting Barry Mason’s contribution – I’d never known where those labels came from and I’ve updated my graphic to reflect it.

  2. Heike says:

    You’re absolutely right, Steve! Thank you so much for sharing your faszinating insights. Please keep up the good work!

    1. Hi Heike, thanks for the comment. Lovely to hear from you – I remember fondly your detailed observations of the difference between English and German public transport. I was particularly impressed with the difference in train sounds that you noticed!

  3. Steve, there’s a questionnaire, p.42, in a book called ‘Developing Management Skills for Europe’ by Whetten, Cameron and Woods, pub. Prentice Hall – now out of print I think, that looks at Tolerance of Ambiguity. There are many very useful questionnaires and analyses in this book, which has some of the most interesting material and ideas about how to become an innovative manager.

    1. Hi Francine, thanks for your comment and the tip-off regarding the questionnaires and analyses. My stance on these types of questionnaire things is that they are very helpful ‘navigation aids’ in making sense of dynamic and ever shifting proceses and therefore can’t give absolute answers or truths. With this in mind I will be swiftly on e-bay to see if I can source a copy.

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