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  • claremayell

When Certainty is a Bad Thing?

Updated: Feb 23, 2021

Minimising bad decisions is a theme in Maria Konnikova’s book ‘The Biggest Bluff’ - a depiction of her journey into professional poker.

The object of poker is good decisions. Everyone plays well when they’re winning. But can you control yourself when you're losing?” she asks.

It's the same for projects. When going well, project decisions are easy, everything is a breeze, people are getting along fine, progress is steaming ahead, everything is on track. Contrast that to your complex and difficult projects where the absence of good decisions can make or break them. Projects start to fail or get stuck – with lots of angst for all.

Of course, decisions can be wrong - often with no fault whatsoever. The big frustration is when decisions would have been different with a more detail to base them on. The realisation that decisions are compromised simply because nobody realised that key information was missing or invalid. Particularly on the smaller, everyday ones that somehow turn from insignificant to a critical choice.

Why did it get missed?

Maybe because difficult questions were avoided. Maybe because it is more comfortable to work in the black and white certainty than in the grey. Maybe too many assumptions were made. Or maybe the cause is more subtle. Perhaps improper certainty is at play.

What's that?

Let me expand a little. We’ve all shared information as definite, factual, concrete, both at work and socially. But is it really definite? Totally definite? Were you absolutely 100% certain? Would you stake everything on it? Or were you only 90%, 80%, 75%, less?

Less that 100% confidence introduces degrees of uncertainty. It can mislead us. It allows us to base decisions on what we thought was fact - in other words 'improper certainty'.

So, how can we fix this. Research confirms that we question ourselves to validate our ‘certainty’ as totally certain more when there is a consequence to us. When we're 'all in'.

Our minds learn when we have a stake, a real stake, in the outcome of our learning.’

This applies to all the big decisions. But what about the hundreds of smaller project decisions? How can you minimise the proportion of these that are bad - based on improper certainty or assumptions. More enquiry is one answer. Close observation of what is going on avoids this, asking the awkward stuff, questioning information presented. In other words, using more enquiry can minimise improper certainty.

Projects that Deliver relies on increased levels of enquiry. We insist on asking those difficult questions about projects – the ones in the grey, the ones that people are uncomfortable raising, the ones people do not want to answer and the informal inputs. Without this continual updating of all insights the probability of your project being a success is diminished.

What next?

If you think your projects have improper certainty or might need more enquiry, why not book-in to have an initial chat with us about how our approach to disrupt the project management norm might help you. Not ready for that, why not try our project complexity quiz as a first step?

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