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Mike Rother

Mike Rother: Certainty Bias versus Reality

By Mike Rother, - Last updated: Thursday, May 23, 2013 - Save & Share - Leave a comment

Question:  What can we learn from the Lean Startup?

I think the current popularity of the Lean Startup approach, with its emphasis on iteration, experimentation and a willingness to “pivot” based on what you learn from the experimentation, has the potential to help Lean thinking evolve.

Given a choice between a statement of certainty and a non-certain statement we tend to prefer the certain statement. This bias is potentially dangerous because any ideas or plans we have are actually only propositions that need to be tested. According to some neuroscientists, feelings of certainty and conviction are involuntary mental sensations, not rational conclusions.

“Declarations of high confidence mainly tell you that an individual has constructed a coherent story in his mind, not necessarily that the story is true.” ~ Daniel Kahneman

We like to be certain in our view because that’s how how our brain is wired. However, once we think we know, we set a course and go, rather than testing, learning and adapting. That’s where trouble begins.

“It ain’t what you don’t know that gets you into trouble. It’s what you know for sure that just ain’t so.” ~ Mark Twain

Over the decades several related concepts have been put forth to counter our hazardous certainty bias. Just the ones I’m familiar with include:

All of these concepts have failed to take hold and we remain largely unconscious of our certainty bias. Just watch C-SPAN or attend a meeting if you need examples. Whether in business, politics or daily life, we still often believe the best way to respond to a problem or handle a goal is to deliberate over the correct answers and arrive at a consensus.

Unfortunately, that uncreative and unscientific approach is useful only in the simplest cases where the same path has already been traveled before. It’s not a good way of tapping our unique human learning capability and successfully handling complex situations. There’s almost always a grey zone between where you are and where you want to be next, and deliberating over correct answers beyond your current knowledge threshold is ineffective. You need to experiment in order to see further.

Will the Lean Startup movement influence our way of thinking? The answer may revolve around whether or not the Lean Startup movement itself keeps testing, learning and adapting. A danger for any movement, including the established Lean movement, is, well, certainty bias. A dilemma for a movement, however, is that it’s audience wants it to be certain. Perhaps that’s the fine line to be trod.

Mike

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