September 22, 2021

Certainty Is Poisonous. Curiosity Gives Life.

[Foggy Road]

As I stepped outside for my morning walk just before dawn, I took in a different scene than normal - it was very foggy out. It was beautiful to see the neighborhood scenery slowly appear before me as I wondered at the daybreak beaming between tree branches. 

And then, In a curvy dip in the road, I encountered something different: a car. 

I quickly realized that it was harder for them to see me in the fog, so I turned on my flashlight and stepped to the side of the road, hoping to increase the odds I wouldn’t become a hood ornament. The driver either could have been on autopilot - following their typical path while taking a swig of coffee or tuning in to their favorite podcast - or they could have been attentive to what was on the road. I am thankful this driver was alert and curious rather than certain about the familiar path ahead. I was soon enjoying sunbeams playing through the trees again.

When we are confident that we know everything, certain that our perspective is correct and our plan is good, we miss things. Sometimes these things are critical.

Certainty's Failed History

In our PAL-EBM classes, we explore the history of failed companies - former giants of their markets. It is littered with leaders who were certain they understood the path forward, blinding themselves to the things that would be their downfall, much like driving at high speeds in the fog. Certainty poisoned the life of their companies.

In 1975, Kodak leaders believed the digital camera one of their engineers invented would decimate their core massive, dominant film business. So they scuttled it. In a twist of irony, they were right - in the coming years, digital cameras took over, and the film business dissolved. The leaders’ decision to protect their current business was also a decision to allow others to develop and market the digital cameras that destroyed their film business.

What would have happened if they had more curiosity than certainty? Consider how these questions might have shifted their perspective:

  • What about this would delight our customers?
  • What unmet customer needs would this satisfy?
  • What factors do we want to make visible so we can understand consumer trends in this area?
  • What might the next market be beyond film, and how can we best position ourselves for it?

When we ask these types of curious questions regularly, we invite openness and exploration into our thinking and collaboration. This is the soil within which creativity and innovation meet our customer’s unmet needs.

There are different details in the stories of Blackberry, Blockbuster, and others, but there is a constant theme: certainty over curiosity. In our increasingly complex and unpredictable environments, this is dangerous...even poisonous.

Certainty invites biases that blind us to the reality we need to see.

Certainty can be found in many domains: what our customers need, how we produce our products, and how we interact with each other. Once we’ve found something that works, we tend to believe our current conditions will continue, and our unconscious biases kick in. So it becomes easy and natural to filter out data that might show us a different reality, seeing it as more efficient to stick to our plan. In other words, certainty invites biases that blind us to the reality we need to see.

Increasing Curiosity

If you’re looking to increase your curiosity, here are a few tips I’ve found that help:

  • When something works well, be curious about why - what conditions enabled the success? How would you know this is helpful to apply another time? What would indicate it’s NOT a good time to apply this?
  • What are you trying to protect? How could that become your Achilles heel?
  • What assumptions do you have? How can you test them?
  • Explore Evidence-Based Management from Scrum.org. Learn by reading through the EBM Guide or connect with me in a class.

Uncertainty and complexity make curiosity, questions, and learning essential in modern leaders’ toolkits. I’d be happy to explore this with you in an individual coaching session or upcoming class.

Stay curious!

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