During Uncertainty, Resist the Temptation for Certainty

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We are living in moments of significant uncertainty about the global economic and geopolitical outlook. Faced with uncertainty, we can be attracted to eliminating questions and find something to be certain about. What we really need to do is be more curious, pause long enough to explore other perspectives. Let me tell you why and how.

Make Good Bets

The work of leadership is deciding where to place bets when you don’t really know if the decisions will pay off. In the absence of certainty, focus on what you need to learn. This helps build flexibility in teams to adapt when needed.

Consider the recent experience at Trek Bicycles. During the early days of the pandemic in 2020, product managers spotted a trend that countered the prevailing reaction to contain costs. They used forecasting software that kept them in touch with dealers and users. They spotted a new trend, anticipated demand, and placed orders with key suppliers ahead of their competitors. We call these feedforward metrics because they provide evidence for which path to take.

We are more likely to find these weak signals of a new trend if we are encouraging dissenting voices in our teams. This means creating a high degree of productive tension in our conversations. That means designing meetings not for agreement but for dissent. Find the dissonant voices to uncover unexpected ways forward. When a team is in the zone of constructive tension, the social interactions create learning and the opportunity for change. When we are in the zone, we unlock potentiali. When the tension is too low, problems are not discussed.

When the tension is too high, we cling to what we know. In the zone of productive tension, tough issues get raised and resolved, and everyone learns in the process.

Bias of Certainty

Certainty is a form of bias. We have decided and therefore we know. We select information based on what we think is the case. This is the field of cognitive biases, so well explained by Daniel Kahneman, Nobel Prize winner in behavioral economics, author of Noise: A Flaw in Human Judgement, and Thinking Fast and Slow. He beautifully illustrates how biases get in the get in the way of effective decision making

 

Our comforting conviction that the world makes sense rests on a secure foundation: our almost unlimited ability to ignore our ignorance.

—Daniel Kahneman

 

You are more likely to make a good decision when you push the boundaries of your ignorance. When we work with teams running business experiments, we ask them to test the different assumptions that underpin their idea for a new product or service. Nine times out of ten they start with experiments that are designed to confirm what they believe to be true. Our challenge is always to get them to test assumptions that you don’t want to be true. They have to put their new business idea at risk of failing if they are ever going to learn how to make it succeed.

Explore Multiple Interpretations

One way we undermine our success in situations of uncertainty and complexity is by striving for certainty. The more certain you feel about an outcome, the more vulnerable you are to ignoring or overlooking important evidence. Psychologists call this confirmation bias.

When members of the senior team are presenting strategic plans and we notice a high degree of certainty in the dialogue, it is a warning sign they may not be in the zone of constructive tension. That is a ripe moment to “stop the action” and ask the group to interpret what is going on.

I realize it can feel risky to admit you aren’t certain how to achieve an outcome. Yet one increases the return on learning by getting comfortable with discomfort. By its nature, the zone of productive tension is ripe with feelings of unease.

Avoid the “I’m right, you’re wrong” debates.

Improve how you and your team interpret situations. Don’t settle on one perspective. Get several interpretations of the same situation. Pay attention to the degree of discomfort…you are likely to notice constructive tension with a visceral reaction. Use it as a signal to slow down and check-in about what is at stake.

Practice Transparency

Apply the disciplines of innovation by being explicit about assumptions and testing them. We all tell ourselves a story about any situation. Describe your assumptions and ask others to do the same. Focus on learning by doing.

Get good at course correction. Be explicit about assumptions and be open to challenging them.

If you don’t think you have a blind spot that is your blind spot!

 

If you are good at course correction, then being wrong is less expensive than being slow.

—Jeff Bezos, 2017 Letter to Shareholders

 


i Vygotsky, L. S. Mind in Society: The Development of Higher Psychological Processes. Harvard University Press, 1978