Are We Rather Wrong Than Uncertain?

Erwin van der Koogh bio photo By Erwin van der Koogh Comment

Have you ever been in a situation where you were asked for an estimate, prediction or forecast based on very little actual data or experience? Even after you confront people with the fact that you can’t make a proper guess (that is what they are after all) they usually still insist. Now here is the interesting bit: You can’t just make up a number; It (or at least the process to get to it) has to be believable enough.

But that means that even if someone knows the data that was used to estimate is not sufficient and that any previous attempts to estimate something similar in the past has failed, they can still believe the new estimates.
Is there any other explanation than that we would rather be wrong than uncertain?

Now I am not the first one to come to that conclusion: Dan North mentioned it for the first time in his 2011 Keynote at Øredev. But when I try to find any research on how humans deal with uncertainty, and the fear of uncertainty especially I can’t really find anything.

Our organizations are current structured to systematically stamp out any uncertainty it can find. We have budgets, targets, forecast, KPIs, metrics, policies and procedures that prevent the great majority of an organization from having to deal with uncertainty.
But if we want to have an organization designed to survive & thrive in the 21st century we are going to have to give people more autonomy. And that is likely going to increase their levels of uncertainty.

Are there different types of uncertainty that people react differently to? Is the amount of control they have over certain aspects related to the uncertainty a factor that makes a difference? Is it a human problem or maybe an organizational problem? What influence does trust in the environment have on people’s comfort level with uncertainty? What can we do to make people more comfortable with it? Are people afraid of uncertainty or could it be the possibility of failure? Or maybe variance?

Those are just the first few questions that popped in my head just thinking about it. If you have any anecdotes, information or research about how people deal with uncertainty I would love to hear from you in the comments. Most organizations can’t make the leap to an organization that can thrive in complex environments because of it and we need to get to the bottom of this.