The renowned physicist Richard Feynman knew that "Doubt is not a fearful thing, but a thing of great value." The philosopher Charles Peirce, the father of American pragmatism, extolled the virtues of doubt since in his view little useful inquiry happens without it. And yet, in business, doubt often has a negative connotation.

That's the wrong way to look at it. What's critical in management is how doubts are cultivated, explored and resolved.  Great leaders know when to question false assumptions, insist on better evidence, and how to encourage team members to engage in critical introspection in order to develop deeper insights.  This is not easy, given that feelings of doubt are seldom pleasant. Most action-oriented managers want to bring closure to business problems, be viewed as decisive and move on. Doubt can be a welcome brake, though, whenever premature consensus rises or overconfidence creeps in.

The U.S. Department of Justice recently started to recognize the value of doubt in expert testimony, based on an FBI analysis of the accuracy of hair-sample evidence used at trials.  [1]  The study examined 268 criminal cases and found errors in 95% of the hair sample analyses. During the 15-year study period, more than a dozen of those convicted in these cases were executed or died in prison. Stung by such expert overconfidence in the court room, the Justice Department recently issued new guidelines aimed at injecting some doubt in expert testimony about matching hair, fingerprint, DNA or handwriting samples.  Specifically, claims of "zero error rates" are now banned. The adversarial nature of the courts, which relies on prosecution and defense making their strongest cases, may naturally suppress doubt among the prosecuting attorneys. In business, similar dialectic processes will be at play whenever managers have to advocate one-sidedly for their viewpoint.  However, doubt is a good lubricant whenever we need to see the world anew.

Allow Room for Hunches and Dissent

Leaders can improve the sense-making process by raising doubts.  One approach is to encourage colleagues to give voice to their hunches, which often manifest themselves weakly at first in the form of fear, irritation, boredom or perhaps even feelings of guilt.  Doubt is a sense that not all is right and that too much is unclear.  It is a feeling that casts a large shadow of discomfort over current courses of action, without knowing necessarily what is amiss or how to fix it.  As Locke et al phrased it, "when we nurture hunches, we cultivate the generative potential of doubt." [2] Once doubt exists, the crucial process of inquiry and testing can start, ideally driven by deep curiosity about new questions and challenges.  A large bank, for example, was deciding whether to acquire an international competitor. On purely financial grounds, this acquisition seemed very profitable. Yet, at the same time, there was a vague, poorly-articulated feeling among some executives that something was overlooked in the analysis. This 'hunch' caused the bank's leaders to postpone the decision and further explore the feelings of discomfort. Several rounds of deep discussions revealed that the incipient feelings stemmed from previous acquisitions gone wrong. After being of two minds for a while  [3] the bank decided to table the acquisition due to valid concerns that various regulatory risks could not be well managed.

Managing Doubt Effectively

Apart from surfacing hunches, leaders can induce doubt by exploring surprises that catch them off guard.  The surprise may be that other people do not see a problem the same way as you do, or that they deem a certain action to be a big mistake.  Since nearly every mistake, misread or surprise has a potential silver lining in hidden lessons, managers need to work hard to mine them for deeper insights. This means orchestrating learning cycles that run the gamut from surprise to doubt to inquiry to learning and action.  Once various iterations of this loop have yielded multiple benefits in an organization, its culture will start to view doubt, if managed well, as a valuable business asset deserving of respect.  Most complex decisions need both intuitive and analytical examination, and doubts expressed at the right time can help accomplish that.

To illustrate, leaders in the midst of a complex business model transformation had to decide which business activities to outsource and where to push for more internal innovation. However, several board members privately harbored doubts about this approach. Rather than suppress these faint stirrings, some voiced them and the board then embarked on a disciplined process to dig deeper. Each private reservation was explored by asking board members to rotate such roles as defending or challenging the issue of concern. The board learned, over time, that the quality of dialogue could be much enhanced by respecting people's experiences and intuitive feelings, and now accepts that the state of "not being sure" is an essential part of a good decision process. In essence, the board now views latent doubt as a valuable counter weight to overly analytical approaches when solving complex organizational or strategic problems.

Avoiding Problems Beats Solving Them

It is said that a wise person avoids the kind of problems that an intelligent person may be able to solve. The global financial crisis is replete with examples of insufficient doubt.   A herd instinct took hold, fueled by false assumptions of home prices always rising and markets being rational, both of which blinded smart people to weak signals that a house of cards was about to collapse.  As highlighted in The Big Short  [4], it takes special efforts to find and amplify disparate or surprising weak signals, and then connect them in ways that surfaces their deeper meaning.  Creating and managing doubt is the key to handling this process well.  Constructive doubt is above all defined by its capacity to reframe problems, explore new pathways and deepen our understanding of the world around us. Without permitting doubt, we will all eventually hit a big wall and rue our ignorance or blind faith.

 Co-authored with Wijnand Nuijts LLM, Head of Department Governance, Behaviour and Culture ‎of the Dutch Central Bank. Wijnand contributed to this article in a personal capacity.



Published on: Jul 27, 2016
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