The value of doubt

In a piece by author Dan Pink, research studies suggest that we might perform better on tasks if we start with an attitude of inquiry instead of an attitude of declarative confidence. When groups of people were asked to unscramble anagrams, those that were primed to believe that they could solve it did worse than those who were primed to question their ability. One of the explanations given is the following: “Setting goals and striving to achieve them assumes, by definition, that there is a discrepancy between where you are and want to be. When you doubt, you probably achieve the right mindset.” For me, the following question came up: why is this the right mindset?

Pink’s article dances around that question without explicitly tackling it. I would suggest that it may have something to do with enabling learning. When we doubt with sincerity (and not rhetorically), we are opening ourselves up to information that might change our decisions. In contrast, those who do not doubt their plans at all are placing a 100% probability on the future turning out the way they wish. This closes us to inquiry and information that might be material to our decision-making. One way to check if people are truly that sure about the future is to ask, “Are you willing to be shot if the future turns out otherwise?” This question helps most people who initially put 100% probabilities to step back from such an extreme position and allow for the possibility of learning by lowering their probabilities.

While this wisdom is probably acceptable to most people, its value remains philosophical unless action is taken on it. To drive consistent action, rituals that involve the introduction of doubt are necessary in business planning and evaluation processes. One effective ritual is the use of proof plans, where the following question gets asked: “What do I need to see as evidence in order to mortgage my house to fund this initiative?” The question implies that the decision-maker is not currently ready to mortgage his/her house, and needs to reflect on factors that need to fall in place to achieve success. Another effective ritual is the use of Tornado Diagrams to turn single point estimates describing the future into ranges. One company to have used both rituals is HP’s famed printing division, leading to the launching of 15 business opportunities out of 30 that were analyzed, followed by a 70% success rate. Another company that has taken this conversation to another level is Eli Lilly, which had instituted rituals to embrace and quantify uncertainty. In a study that compared outcomes of projects with the probabilities of success placed on then, the resulting correlation was remarkable and is perhaps the first evidence of its kind that supports the notion that it is healthy to engage in rituals that facilitate conversations around uncertainty.