People crave certainty like they crave food and water – and will go to almost any lengths to create certainty where none exists.
Harvard Business Review writes as follows:
“Of all the headwinds we face as decision-makers, the power of one overshadows all others: our need for certainty. It is typically more important for us to feel right, than to be right — a difference that didn’t matter much in the lives of our ancestors, but now matters a lot.”
And it explains it as follows:
“The lockdown of our minds serves an important purpose: Generations of our ancestors wouldn’t have survived had they constantly second-guessed their conclusions. In a harsh environment characterized by straightforward challenges that demanded quick responses, an indecisive caveman was a dead one.”
And then comes to this conclusion:
“Complex decision-making requires we defer the feeling of being right, by tolerating the tension of not knowing.”
I am not alone in thinking that people who claim to know the answer (and few are more certain than scientists) really don’t know anything:
- NN Taleb points out that turkey will have growing confidence in his master’s desire to care well for it; until the master comes visiting with a big knife on until Christmas Eve. The point being that risk is not a linear process. (Just because spreadsheets make it easy to extend rows of numbers don’t mean they have any value.)
- Shane Parrish wrote an interesting few observations about The Dangers of Certainty.
- Andy Grove (ex-Intel Chairman) published his take on corporate management and strategy, putting constant paranoia on the pedestal, and that means he weaves uncertainty into the fabric of the organisational culture because ‘fear’ is nothing but uncertainty.
If you are perfectly confident in your answer, you won’t listen and you won’t hear the warning signs that you are wrong.
The HBR academics don’t address HOW we can go about fighting this basic physiological response, but this is a little mental checklist that I have learned to apply in decision making:
- Is (what I think) true fact or disguised opinion?
- What is the opposite of what I think and why is that not true?
- If this is so self-evident, why isn’t everyone doing it?
- I am simply extrapolating like a turkey?
Naturally no one will actually have mental checklist; but these types of responses in any decision situation becomes a ‘mindset’ and ‘a way of looking’ at things. Initially it may be acquired by being more conscious about the process until we become adept at distinguishing between what we know for certain and what we want to know.
I am not advocating analysis-paralysis; on the contrary, I am promoting that executives become prone to action by recognising the fuzzy comfort of perceived certainty for what it is. That is exactly why ‘movements’ like ‘lean thinking’ and ‘agile development’ came to prominence.
It is really all about fine-tuning your bullsh*t detector, and being honest enough to know that it must be aimed at our own conceptions and perceptions as much as other people’s.
You will be a better decision-maker if you do this: reject the pursuit of certainty as a noxious weed growing in your garden of innovation.
And few organisations can afford to be lead by leaders who lead as if they are completely certain about everything, because certainty is a lens through which we view a world that does not exist.
PS: This LinkedIn post elaborates a bit more chaos theory.