The Certainty Paradox: Why Being Wrong is Often Right

This post originally appeared on Matt’s Medium in August, 2013. You can read the original post here.

We all crave clarity in our work. It means knowing what we should focus on, in what priority, and what we can safely ignore. In providing that clarity, a leader makes explicit tradeoffs among the various things the team might focus on. The more conviction he has in his decision, the clearer the leader’s direction. And there’s the rub: conviction is hard to come by in precisely those cases where clarity is most needed. In truth, good leadership requires clarity in the absence of conviction, and mastery of this balance sets great leaders apart.

Reflecting on my time at Apple, I’ve come to see this as one of Steve Job’s greatest skills. I doubt he was ever as assured in his decisions as we all thought he was. But he had a damn good poker face, and he made it clearwhat we were supposed to focus on. His supreme confidence made it easy to simply execute his decisions. (Steve was notorious for, among other things, throwing pens at employees and calling them idiots, a healthy way to reinforce his conviction.) He was often wrong in some way, but nobody cared because the company more quickly made its way to better answers as a result.

Let’s say you’re faced with a decision on product direction. Will you target a narrow set of customers and go deep on product features for that group? Or will you attempt to broaden the addressable market by implementing a shallower but broader set of features? These kinds of product decisions are murky, because there’s no right answer. Your team doesn’t feel empowered to decide on their own because the decision, while informed by data, cannot be known to be right. The stakes are high, so everyone’s looking at you to decide.

Your instinct is initially the right one: find information to inform your decision. How much time will it take to implement each option? Your team gives you some estimates. How big is each market? You fetch some data. How will people in each audience respond to the features? You make some guesses.

Wait too long, however, and productivity slows or stops. Your team is looking to you for a clear decision, but you don’t feel convinced of any particular course of action. In all likelihood, the options themselves aren’t even discrete. And while you’ve been searching for the new information that’ll tip the scales in your mind, your team has accomplished little.

The magical moment of both conviction and clarity will probably never arrive.

The difficult but all-important move? Make a decision, even when the only thing that’s certain is that you might be wrong. Quick, clear decisions in the absence of an obviously correct approach lead you to new knowledge. You’ll know whether you were right or wrong, and nobody’s keeping score anyway.

Steve had an uncanny ability to see the future and “know” he was right. The rest of us have to accept the risk of incorrectness, but embrace the need for clarity. (Minus the pen throwing and name calling.)

There is no magic recipe for doing this right, but there are a few rules of thumb.

  • If your team is looking to you for a decision, make one. Don’t be haphazard, but don’t overweight “more information.” Sometimes you won’t get useful information unless you begin executing on a particular option.
  • It’s fine to gather opinions from your team, but avoid the temptation to coax them into a consensus, thereby obviating the need to decide. That’s usually a cop-out. If you have an opinion, try turning it into a decision instead.

The long-term consequences of weak or slow decision making can kill a company. The confidence you project should be correlated with your internal confidence, but they needn’t be equal. Sometimes, speed is more important than accuracy, clarity more important than certainty. Be the leader who helps people know what they should focus on, even if, more than once in a while, you’re wrong.

Thanks to Mike Duca and Dave Lieb for their contributions to this post.