Yin-yang thinking – A solution to dealing with unknown unknowns?

By Christiane Prange and Alicia Hennig

1. Christiane Prange (biography)
2. Alicia Hennig (biography)

Sometimes, we wonder why decisions in Asia are being made at gargantuan speed. How do Asians deal with uncertainty arising from unknown unknowns? Can yin-yang thinking that is typical for several Asian cultures provide a useful answer?

Let’s look at differences between Asian and Western thinking first. Western people tend to prefer strategic planning with linear extrapolation of things past. The underlying mantra is risk management to buffer the organization and to protect it from harmful consequences for the business. But juxtaposing risk and uncertainty is critical. Under conditions of uncertainty, linearity is at stake and risk management limited.

In several Asian cultures, like China, dealing with high uncertainty and volatility is day-to-day business. The country overall scores comparatively low on the uncertainty avoidance index as illustrated by culture researcher Geert Hofstede (2001). For an outside observer, everything seems to be in constant change to the extent that initial plans and/or agreements become irrelevant.

Back in Zhou Dynasty (ca. 1046 – 256 BC) the Chinese already had a ‘solution’ to deal with uncertainty and unknown unknowns. The oracle book Zhou Yi 周易, the Changes of Zhou (with appendices later known as the ancient classic Yi Jing 易經, the Book of Changes) helped the Kings to identify actions leading to good fortune. It was also the first work applying the concept of yin-yang.

Yin-yang represent dual, alternating and interdependent categories or principles that are dynamically related. Yin-yang goes back to natural observations of yin 陰 shady side of the hill, darkness and yang 陽 sunny side of the hill, brightness, that together form an integrated whole. This concept, and the idea that change is the only constant, provides the basis for the Chinese cosmology, worldview and logic. Yin-yang is reflected in the Chinese way of thinking that is characterized by a non-linear worldview, where there is no pre-defined and final goal but patterns are changing, being ‘repeated’ in a circular fashion. This thinking can provide at least three important insights for a better understanding of unknown unknowns.

1. Co-existence and balance of opposing elements
Unlike Western thinking as a process of ‘either/or’ exclusion, yin-yang is ‘both/and’ thinking that suggests the idea of co-existence and balance of opposites. For example, modern approaches to organizations advocate the use of agile principles to better cope with complexity. While a major tenet of agility is speed and adaptability, the concept is incomplete and often unsuccessful if not balanced with slowness and stability.

2. Process-orientation
For Easterners, changes in a (planning) process are no contradiction as long term-opportunity is compatible with constant adaptation; there exists no ultimate a priori truth in a plan, as it needs to be aligned with situation, context, and time. In this sense, planning and implementation are constantly interacting until the goal is reached. For Westerners, this interactive refinement is difficult because they prefer strict project planning, formal scheduling and subsequent implementation.

3. Uncertainty as natural and uncontrollable
The last tenet is probably the most important when it comes to dealing with unknown unknowns. Westerners typically see ambiguity as rather negative. They like to have access to information as a basis of rational planning. When relevant information is missing, they revert to risk scenarios to cover up for the lack of control – a widely misleading exercise to capture what has not been or cannot be known.

In contrast, Eastern people embrace ambiguity as desirable and don’t need to substitute complexity by simplicity and uncertainty with certainty. By seeing uncertainty and certainty as transitory, alternating phases, they avoid the trap of believing that uncertainty can be rationally managed and eliminated. This leads to a more relaxed, realistic and creative approach to unknown unknowns.

Given the attractiveness of Eastern thinking in situations of uncertainty, can Westerners learn from Asians? Can yin-yang thinking be transferred to a different cultural context? In most cases, a direct transfer is difficult because concepts are tied to history and culture. They often touch deeply engrained values that are mostly hidden and subconscious.

Regardless of these barriers, a few ideas from yin-yang thinking could help Westerners when dealing with uncertainty and unknown unknowns:

  • Understand that uncertainty is not something negative but can be strategically exploited, as uncertainty and certainty are two sides of the same coin that are interdependent and alternating;
  • Play with both past patterns and newly emerging patterns to increase the potential scope of action;
  • Practice thinking from different, opposing directions to arrive at variable and flexible solutions under the condition of constant change.

Eastern philosophy may be worth considering when it comes to dealing with the complexities of today. Can we thereby better tackle the uncertainty that accompanies unknown unknowns? Although we cannot eliminate uncertainty, Eastern philosophy can teach us how to deal with it productively. The success of this endeavor, though, is likely to be matter of individuals adapting their thinking to the ‘circular’ logic of yin-yang.

Do you think yin-yang thinking is worth adopting? Have you seen examples in the Western world? What potential difficulties do you see in adopting this logic or way of thinking?

Granet, M. (1985). Das Chinesische Denken (trans: M. Porkert). Suhrkamp: Frankfurt, Germany

Hofstede, G. (2001). Culture’s consequences: Comparing values, behaviors, institutions and organizations across nations. Sage: Thousand Oaks, California, United States of America

Li, P. P. (1998). Towards a geocentric framework of organizational form: A holistic, dynamic and paradoxical approach. Organization Studies, 19, 5: 829–861.

Wang, R. R. (2012). Yinyang: The Way of Heaven and Earth in Chinese Thought and Culture. Cambridge University Press: New York, United States of America

Biography: Christiane Prange PhD is a Professor of Strategic and International Management at Tongji University, Shanghai, China. She is also the Director of the AgileVentureLab, a global think tank and expert advisory group focused on strategizing and transformation of global companies facing shifting dynamics, and learning from Asia (especially China).

Biography: Alicia Hennig PhD is an Associate Professor of Business Ethics at Southeast University, Nanjing, China. She is an interdisciplinary cross-cultural researcher working on Chinese philosophy and its application in business and management.

This blog post is part of a series on unknown unknowns as part of a collaboration between the Australian National University and Defence Science and Technology.

For the seven other blog posts already published in this series, see: https://i2insights.org/tag/partner-defence-science-and-technology/

Scheduled blog posts in the series:
January 14, 2020: Detecting non-linear change ‘inside-the-system’ and ‘out-of-the-blue’ by Susan van ‘t Klooster and Marjolijn Haasnoot
January 28, 2020: How can resilience benefit from planning? by Pedro Ferreira
February 11, 2020: Why do we protect ourselves from unknown unknowns? by Bem Le Hunte

10 thoughts on “Yin-yang thinking – A solution to dealing with unknown unknowns?”

  1. Hi Christiane and Alicia, I’d never thought about it until prompted by your post, but yin-yang thinking would be one of the reasons that I’ve been drawn to China (currently Wuxi), and the time that I’ve spent here has affirmed that way of thinking in my mind. Thank you for the opportunity for this insightful reflection.

    Environmental conservation, which has been the focus of much of my career, aims for certainty. We draw lines on maps to delineate conservation areas, and we seek to regulate environmental impacts through fixed laws and guidelines that dictate what people can and can’t do and where they can and can’t do those things.

    However, the natural environment isn’t static. It’s in a constant state of change due to considerable temporal and spatial variability in the elements of water (rainfall and runoff), fire (forest and grass fires), and wind, together with variability in the responses of the complex web of life (plants and animals) to the variability in the elements. Perpetual change is the only constant factor. Then, on top of that, there’s the added complexity of the human factor, where there’s a constant push-pull between the need to exploit the natural environment for the food, water, fibre, fuel and building materials on one hand, and the need to sufficiently protect the environment to ensure its long term survival on the other hand. In addition to water, fire, and wind, the element of earth (geology and landform) also contributes to what ecosystems occur where, and the overcoming interactions of the element of metal explain human exploitation of the environment. Together, these are the five elements of the Five Element Theory of Chinese philosophy.

    Taking a linear planning and regulatory approach to this socio-ecological complexity can only really lead to failure. So it’s no surprise to me to see for example that “Once considered almost inalienable, protected areas today are facing an array of legal threats collectively known as PADDD – Protected Area Downgrading, Downsizing, and Degazettement.” (http://alert-conservation.org/issues-research-highlights/2018/5/13/the-global-battle-over-protected-areas)

    In contrast, I’ve tried to take approaches in my own work that accept and respond to the constant uncertainty brought about by the interplay of the push-pull of both environmental and social factors, as have a number of my colleagues. For example, the Sustainable Management of the Helidon Hills Project reflects the ideas you put forward in regard to how yin-yang thinking could help Westerners when dealing with uncertainty and unknown unknowns (https://bruceboyes.info/1999/12/sustainable-management-of-the-helidon-hills/). However, so many environmental management processes worldwide still take linear approaches that try to make uncertain situations certain, an impossible goal, rather than accepting and working with uncertainty.

    Moving forward in time to my current knowledge management work, yin-yang thinking explains the situational awareness knowledge challenge faced by the pilots of every aircraft flight, as I discuss in the article “Getting to the heart of the problems with Boeing, Takata, and Toyota (part 1): The situational awareness knowledge challenge” (https://realkm.com/2019/07/01/getting-to-the-heart-of-the-problems-with-boeing-takata-and-toyota-part-1-the-situational-awareness-knowledge-challenge/). Boeing took a linear, certainty-seeking approach to trying to address the constant uncertainty of situational awareness, when it should be engaging the pilots who deal with that uncertainty every moment of every flight in an ongoing process of identifying the ever-changing factors. It is this that I will be proposing in the final part of the series, based on Xiaomi’s open innovation approach (https://realkm.com/2019/06/21/active-knowledge-exchange-with-users-and-partners-in-open-innovation-the-case-study-of-xiaomi/). I’ve delayed that final part as it looks like I may have the opportunity to put this proposal into practice with a highly innovative Chinese automotive manufacturer.

    Yin-yang thinking has also made me realise that the knowledge management discipline itself has taken a linear and certainty-seeking approach based on a one-sided utopian view of how people use knowledge. Knowledge management practices are grounded in the assumption that people in organisations always seek to use knowledge positively and productively. However, as Steven Alter alerts[1], this isn’t the case – there are also a range of “dark side” knowledge management tactics that people in organisations use. Efforts to manage knowledge in an organisation in a positive way are in a constant state of ever-changing push-pull with dark side KM tactics, but there’s been almost no acknowledgement of this. I’ve started to encourage a change in thinking through some articles over the past year (for example https://realkm.com/2019/05/29/the-use-of-euphemisms-as-a-dark-side-knowledge-management-tactic/), and aim to step up my efforts through 2020. Some of my colleagues are also planning to make this a focus.

    Looking now at your wider work in encouraging global learning from Chinese philosophy, something potentially of interest are the new initiatives that are seeking to decolonise research, higher education, and knowledge. The initial focus is on reversing the knowledge dominance of the global North over the global South, but needs to be extended to encourage the global North to learn from the global South. I’ve just written a summary of the new decolonisation initiatives, and Dr Romina Istratii, who I mention in the article, has been in contact in regard to potential collaboration which we plan to follow up shortly in a teleconference (https://realkm.com/2019/12/13/new-initiatives-begin-decolonising-research-libraries-and-knowledge-systems-but-what-about-decolonising-km/).


    Alter, S. (2006, January). Goals and tactics on the dark side of knowledge management. In Proceedings of the 39th Annual Hawaii International Conference on System Sciences (HICSS’06) (Vol. 7, pp. 144a-144a). IEEE.

    • Dear Bruce,

      Thank you for your long response! I especially find you comment regarding knowledge management very interesting! Definitely, we also acquire knowledge for the purpose of planning and certainty, not just merely for the sake of “wisdom”, as in philosophy where I come from.
      With regard to better “understanding” the environment, at least ethically and relationally, Daoism could be a helpful, inspiring resource for you. I noticed you added me on LinkedIn, so feel free to get in touch with me there for further discussion.
      And yes, definitely we need to decolonialise education, especially philosophy, and I’m trying my best to contribute to this endeavour. However, at conferences it is often the same, especially in my area business ethics: Academia is very much dominated by Westerners still, especially Anglo-American.

  2. It is worthwhile to explore different thought patterns in different cultures, and I found this essay interesting. However, one should be cautious not to over-generalize the uniformity of any culture’s intellectual habits. There are important instances in Western thought where one can find strong deviation from what the authors call “linear extrapolation of things past”. For instance, Hegelian dialectic is characterized by conflict of ideas out of which comes a new synthesis. Or, Darwinian evolution is a process of balance and imbalance, as well as uniformity and diversity, all in perpetuum, with “no pre-defined and final goal” to quote the author. I’ll conclude with a quote from the strategic thinker Edward Luttwak, in his 1984 book “The Pentagon and the Art of War: The Question of Military Reform”, in which he criticizes McNamara’s linear logic (as the authors also might do) but demonstrates in very Western terms his concept of the paradox of strategy:

    “An even greater defect of the McNamara approach to military decisions was its businesslike `linear’ logic, which is right for commerce or engineering but almost always fails in the realm of strategy. Because its essence is the clash of antagonistic and outmaneuvering wills, strategy usually proceeds by paradox rather than conventional ‘linear’ logic. That much is clear even from the most shopworn of Latin tags: “si vis pacem, para bellum” (if you want peace, prepare for war), whose business equivalent would be on the orders of ‘if you want sales, add to your purchasing staff,’ or some other, equally absurd advice. Where paradox rules, straightforward linear logic is self-defeating, sometimes quite literally. Let a general choose the best path for his advance, the shortest and best-roaded, and it then becomes the worst of all paths, because the enemy will await him there in greatest strength.” (pp.269-270)

    In short, the metaphor of non-linear thought has many merits, but it is not unique to the East.

    • Hello Yakov, related to your comment, Brewer and Venaik alert to the ecological fallacy in national culture research, where “culture scales that are correlated at the national (ecological) level [such as those of Hofstede] are not correlated in the same manner at the individual or organizational level.” Within any culture there are people and organisations who will deviate greatly from the behaviours that cultural dimensions tell us to expect.

      Brewer, P. & Venaik, S. (2014). The Ecological Fallacy in National Culture Research. Organization Studies, 35, 1063-1086. https://www.academia.edu/14057938/The_Ecological_Fallacy_in_National_Culture_Research

    • I absolutely agree that different cultures contribute to our understanding of non-linearity. Of course, Hegel’s thoughts are an important contribution. However, there are huge differences in understanding if you look at Eastern thinking where the idea of paradox as something contradictory that can be reconciled just does not exist in the way it exists in the West. An interesting read to highlight different notions of paradox is Papachroni et al. (2015). Organizational Ambidexterity Through the Lens of Paradox Theory: Building a Novel Research Agenda. The Journal of Applied Behavioral Science 2015, Vol. 51(1) 71–93

  3. My original ‘academic’ discipline was in health sciences, specifically acupuncture and Chinese medicine. It is the underlying assumptions I find most interesting when engaging with different perspectives – one such is that of mutual dependence. That is, one is defined by the other, but the seed of change is also embedded in each as well. (Would that be an abstraction?). And of course, that wonderful liminal space, that point of interchange existing between the two :). Your post had me thinking about ‘patterning’, perhaps it is how to engage with the happenings now, rather than focusing on patterns that have happened…

    A provoking read – much enjoyed!

    • Thank you very much! I absolutely agree that patterns are important. And these are not the patterns that result from linear extrapolations of the past. Instead, patterns for the future provide a portfolio of possible actions from which to select when more detailed recipes are missing.

  4. Show me an organization that is agile at adapting to change and I will will show you the same organization that is slow in all the right places. For some organizations they can probably accept uncertainty – even if they hate it – the people who launch rockets and see some of them blow up after they have been checked and rechecked. I guess they are both seeing both sides of yin and yang.

    • I suggest defining agility not simply as adaptation to change or high speed, but as the capacity to decide when change/stability and slow/accerelated speed is necessary. Thus, companies can be very agile also if they are slow and if this fits to their environmental challenges. The same is true for people as you mention.


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