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Certainty is for suckers

Certainty is for suckers

Trade the stress of having to be right for the joy of exploring the unknown!

Maurice Lefebvre
Maurice Lefebvre

We live in a world that demands certainty and exactitude from people, in complete denial that we live in a VUCA environment (Volatile, Uncertain, Complex, and Ambiguous). The quest for certainty and exactitude are not just a fool’s errand, but they are quite simply the wrong things to ask from people.

As an employee, you are hired as an expert, defined as “someone who knows the answers.” What your employer asks of you is to give them certainty and exactitude. You better be right, because you will be held accountable for your answers.

But let’s be honest for a minute here. When you are asked for a exact estimation, or a definitive answer, you get this little sense of panic, right? Because, honestly, you don’t know. Or you know now, but that answer won’t hold until the end of the week or even the end of the day! But since you are paid to know, rather than to admit that you have no idea, you make up something with the most massive caveat possible and hope for the best. You feel a bit like a fraud, but you survive for one more day.

You are not alone in this. The world is too complex and dynamic to know all the answers, so we end up just winging it. I’m a coach, and I can confirm from experience that is true for everyone, from people on their very first job all the way to experienced CEOs. We all make it up as we go along.

But you know what? You shouldn’t feel bad about not having the answers. Amateurs who still hold rote knowledge as the truth are confident of their answers. Real experts don’t shine by knowing the answers, but by their ability to discover those answers.

Certainty is a lie. And everyone knows it.

Companies are notoriously terrible at requiring certainty and exactitude from their experts. An exact date, an exact money figure.

Those companies work through predictive planning and accounting. That means they need to know in advance (often at the beginning of the year) how long everything will take and how much it will cost. Of course you need to take into account anything that can happen. To give them an answer, you need to be able to predict the future and adjust your estimates accordingly. Basically, those companies are run by fortune tellers.

Certainty and exactitude become a charade. You tell “educated guesses”, you game the system to make a date, or you outright make up numbers to fit arbitrary targets. Management will continue asking for predictions and ignoring the wildly wrong guesses unless they need a scapegoat for the missed targets that is.

Capitalize on your expertise for discovery

As a Pyrate, you really cannot let that fly. Make the situation visible, in all its glorious insanity, so no one can avoid acknowledging it anymore. Then propose something else.

The answer to a dependency of certainty is to embrace the uncertain. We live in a VUCA world, and ignoring it won’t make it any less real. Instead of taming reality to make it predictable, or by swearing by information we know to be outdated or downright inaccurate, we gain by having a more realistic outlook.

Experience and expertise are still highly valuable, more so than for the ability to recall old information. Create models that will help you figure out an answer that is within a realistic range.

  • Use your experience to understand how the many variables you need to take into account works.
  • If you lack accurate or current data, learn to run small, controlled experiments. The better your expertise, the easiest it will be to build a valuable experiment.
  • Assume that there’s a lot you don’t know. Assess the situation by asking the VUCA questions, use a model like Rumsfeld’s Known matrix, or Cynefin decision-making framework.

These techniques will allow you to really apply to hard-won expertise and experience to improve your overall results. All you have to do is to start admitting that you do not have the answers and help your company accept that the deception of certainty is detrimental. It is much better not to know for sure and always exploring possibilities than setting in a false sense of comfortable confidence.

You can help turn the definition of an expert from “someone who knows the answers” to “someone who can find out the most appropriate strategy.”

Learn to sail

And then we’re back at making it up as we go. Well, almost.

The world isn’t like a static building where you can just learn all the rooms and predict things like there will be a bathroom on every floor. The world is more like the sea, always changing and too powerful to control. The only thing you can do is learn to sail, always on the lookout for change, always adapting to it, never losing sight of your destination.

By accepting the very uncertain nature of our world, you won’t be caught by surprise nearly as often, and you will be better prepared to face that eventuality. Better yet: you will actively seek change and adaptation instead of having to suffer through it. A change in the world will mean new opportunities, and you will relish the idea of exploring them.