#55 The deflation of doubt

I notice an deflation of doubt and it makes me uneasy.

Regligious people claim ‘the true God’ – because of some imaginary fairytale book. Politicians (and media) frame ‘the truth’ by showing us a fraction of a situation to push their own politcal agendas. And marketeers – in my trade- are sure they have the right solution for a business problem based on some quantified, data driven spreadsheet or a CT scan of a consumers’ brain.

Either way ‘they’ are right and, if you beg to differ, ‘you’ must be wrong. What I find most striking, anoying and sometimes even scary is that – because of the polarising way we tend to have discussions these days  – there seems to be less and less room for doubt and insecurity. Less and less people who dare to say: I don’t know or I’m not sure.

As far as I’m concerned doubt is a valuable and healthy state of mind as long as you don’t let doubt limit your actions. Instead, let doubt feed your motivation to look at issues from different perspectives before you make up -and speak- your mind.

The idea for this post came to me during my holidays. Before I packed my suitcase(s) I was frantically ‘pocketing‘ articles on my Kobe e-reader. One of which was this HBR article ‘Slow decision makers make better Strategists’ by  Mark Chussil. Simultaniously I was reading Gregory David RobertsShantaram.

A definition of Right and Wrong


In Shantaram the main character get’s into a conversation with his mentor about what is Right and Wrong. There is no universally agreed definition of Right and Wrong. Sure we have laws, but the definition of Right and Wrong differs from religion to religion, country to country, from culture to culture and even from person to person.

The mentor claims however that there is a an objective definition possible as he describes the concept of ultimate complexity:

“The universe, this universe that we know, began in almost absolute simplicity, and it has been getting more complex for about fifteen billion years. In another billion years it will be still more complex than it is now. In five billion, in ten billion — it is always getting more complex. It is moving toward…something. It is moving toward some kind of ultimate complexity. We might not get there. An atom of hydrogen might not get there, or a leaf, or a man, or a planet might not get there, to that ultimate complexity. But we are all moving towards it — everything in the universe is moving towards it. And that final complexity, that thing we are all moving to, is what I choose to call God. If you don’t like that word, God, call it the Ultimate Complexity. Whatever you call it, the whole universe is moving toward it.”
Whatever helps to this movement towards Ultimate Complexity is right & opposes is wrong.

Universally agreed definitions fuel progress – the book continues – as it referers to our metric system and financial system where we have globally agreed to the size of a metre, the weight of a kilo, the value of gold etc. We use these agreements so we can focus on the output of our actions. Science, trade, healthcare and so on can’t do without these concepts.

An attractive vision as far as I’m concerned. This could work for religion and politics too! Any universally agreed definition of Right and Wrong might take the bias out of religious and political discussions and create more room for discussion about the output of our words and actions. No matter why you do what you do; the real question is –  will my actions and words move us towards – or away from – Ultimate Complexity? You can doubt and debate this! That’s good.

But how can you be sure these universally agreed definitions are correct? Why shouldn’t we doubt these? Well…we should! Always!

The metre was originally defined in 1793 as one ten-millionth of the distance from the equator to the North Pole. In 1889, it was redefined in terms of a prototype metre bar (the actual bar used was subsequently changed twice). In 1960, the metre was redefined in terms of a certain number of wavelengths of a certain emission line of krypton-86. In 1983, the current definition was adopted: defined as the distance travelled by light in a specific fraction (1/299 792 458) of a second (source Wikipedia).

Or as the main character says;

We can’t be sure this is the final definition. But it will do for the time being until we have a better concept.

Reading all this made me happy :-). Even if it would be possible to overcome biased subjective discussions with a universally agreed definition, even then, we should never be sure, always be open, leave room for doubt, new perspectives and improvement.

Slow decision making

Another thing that made me happy was the article read the article ‘Slow decision makers make better Strategists’ by  Mark Chussil.. Perhaps it’s because I find myself to be a bad stand-up debater that I’m attracted to this concept. I hate getting into a discussion with people without being well prepared on a certain subject. I can sometimes jealously admire the confidence with which some people stake their claims in a discussion and bluff their way through a conversation.

I just can’t do that. I just go numb and start contemplating. And then, when I get home, or when I’m in my car or on my bike I think: “Oh I should have said…..”. The fact is, I just like to think things through first and look at a problem from different angles before I share my opinion. And even then, I’m usually never sure of myself to be honest.

So I was happy to read the article in which Chussil defined 4 styles of strategy decision making and asked different people with different backgrounds and demographics to solve a certain pricing strategy problem.


After solving the problem the respondents where asked how ‘confident’ they were in their decision making. This was matched with the time they spend solving the problem.

In general, the I-already-knows, confident in their snap judgments, and the Now-I-knows, confident after pondering, tend to be older males. Male business students are also represented in the I-already-knows. The I-don’t-knows, unsure of their thoughtful decisions, tend to be somewhat younger. And females make up well over half of the I-don’t-knows, a much higher percentage than in the other mindsets.

The ‘I guessed’ were taken out of the research because they don’t match real-world strategy decision making (so I hope!) But who were most succesfull?

The I don’t knows.

When you think you know the answer, you sincerely believe it’s a waste of time to keep looking for it. It feels like continuing to search for your keys after you’ve found them.I think the essential lesson for competitive-strategy decision-makers is not so fast, in both senses of the phrase: take your time and don’t be so sure.

Perhaps it’s age (“I’ve seen it all”), perhaps it’s over-confidence (“I know it all”) but the research shows we should keep on doubting. Keep on looking an the same situation from a different perspectives in order to find the better solution.

Ultimate complexity

Change is all around. In marketing, in politics, in society, even in religion. As far as I can tell we are indeed moving towards some kind of Ultimate Complexity. This also means that what is true today might very likely be untrue tomorrow. All the more reasons we should embrace doubt instead of claiming the truth. Don’t let others force you into taking a certain position. Speak out on your doubts and insecurities. Let others fuel your perspective with theirs! It will move things forward I’m sure I think…




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