Don Quixote was certain he saw Giants instead of windmills. In this epic story, he believed he knew the answers and saw what he wanted to see. Unfortunately in many organizations, there is this same phenomenon, a need to act as if we are certain. In fact, the higher up you go in an organization, the compulsion of acting with certainty becomes greater and greater. Statements like “That’s why we pay you the big bucks” are used to imply that the higher in an organization, the more you are expected to just “know”.
Some think they must act with “pretend certainty” for the benefit of their career. Others have convinced themselves of “arrogant certainty” where they believe they know the answer or solution but don’t (or can’t) provide any solid basis for this certainty. Unfortunately this arrogance can be interpreted as confidence that can be dangerous to the success of a company. Nassim Nicolas Taleb refers to “epistemic arrogance” that highlights the difference between what someone actually knows and how much he thinks he knows. The excess implies arrogance.
What has allowed certainty within companies to thrive is that there is a distance between the upfront certainty and the time it takes to get to the final outcome. There lacks accountability between certainty at the beginning and the actual results at the end. Often times the difference is explained away by the incompetence of others who didn’t build or implement the solution correctly.
Of course, the truth is somewhere in between. The concept of certainty is actually dangerous to an enterprise since it removes the opportunity of acknowledging the options and allowing the enterprise to apply a discovery mindset approach toward real customer value via customer feedback loops and more.
We also want to avoid the inverse that is remaining in uncertainty due to analysis paralysis. A way to avoid this is to apply work in an incremental framework with customer feedback loops to enable more effective and timely decision-making. Customer feedback will provide us with the evidence for making better decisions. Applying an incremental mindset will enable us to make smaller bets that are easier to make and allow us to adapt sooner.
A healthier and more realistic approach is to have leaders who understand that uncertainty is actually a smart starting position and then apply processes that support gaining certainty. It is, therefore, incumbent upon us to have an approach that admits to limited information and uncertainty, and then applies a discovery process toward customer value. In the end, the beaten and battered Don Quixote forswears all the chivalric false certainty he followed so fervently. Is it time for management to give up the certainty mindset they think they have and instead replace it with a discovery mindset as a better path to customer success?