In decision making at all levels—personal, business and government—it appears there is one pitfall everyone succumbs to at one time or another: the certainty trap. Stated simply, the certainty trap occurs when decision makers grant inordinate meaning to apparent ‘knowns’ that are subsequently revealed to have had little or nothing to do with the outcomes produced by the decision. The effects of the certainty trap on our failures range from marginal opportunity costs to the catastrophic—from a missed business opportunity to waging ill-conceived wars. The certainty trap yields fatuous decisions, however carefully justified by ‘knowns’.
Although we seldom conduct a post-analysis on our victories (after all it was our brilliance and hard work that produced the triumph!), it also seems logical to assert that the certainty trap is outcome agnostic; whether we are successful or not, the certainty trap may have preceded both our wins and our losses. The decision itself is dependent on the ‘knowns’ but the outcome may prove to have been quite independent of the same ‘knowns’. Former secretary of defense Donald Rumsfeld often jousted with reporters over his seemingly magical matrix of knowns and unknowns, focused somewhat fatalistically on those combinations that included ‘unknown’. But what if the real problem was not with the unknowns, rather it was with the knowns that, in reality, did not matter (or, in Rumsfeld’s case were not actually ‘knowns’ at all)? More importantly, how do we avoid the trap of granting inordinate weight to factors that are visible and immediate, but ultimately inconsequential?
The first thing to realize is that the certainty trap is a naturally occurring phenomenon. We need little if any help to fall into it. After all, upon what are we to base our decisions if not those things that are known? Here is where the wisdom born from failure can be critical. While it is natural to point at visible and tangible factors and data to justify our decisions, and equally unnatural to point at the same data and call it into question, doing so may be extraordinarily valuable if the ‘knowns’ are irrelevant (or worse). It takes an exceptionally confident and wise person to discount the obvious knowns in favor of the possibilities lurking in the unknowns. It takes confidence born from intelligence and experience and a wide-open mind to make judgments instead of decisions.
And yet, we can observe many ‘unnatural’ judgments that created enormous successes, while there are many more ‘natural’ decisions that resulted in failures. Steve Jobs made judgments that resulted in the largest and arguably most culturally influential corporation in the world, while Steve Ballmer made decisions that set the incumbent software giant Microsoft on a glide path to mediocrity. Tesla and SpaceX’s Eton Musk made judgments about the future of travel on roads and in space, while at the same time General Motor’s former CEO, Rick Wagoner, made well-justified decisions that led to GM’s bankruptcy. President George H.W. Bush made judgments after the collapse of the Soviet Union that prevented chaos in much of the world while his son, President George W. Bush, made decisions after 9/11 resulting in tragic losses of life and treasure and little, if any, meaningful gains. The outcomes speak for themselves and point to a new rule to observe: worry as much or more about the knowns as the unknowns.
The mindset of the executive who makes judgments vs. those who make decisions is worth exploring. All the executives listed above are intelligent and well-intentioned human beings. They vary in experience levels, but that alone does not assure judgment-making over decision-making. We must look at the cognitive nature of each executive. Do they view the world as a zero-sum game where limits define options, or a world awash in possibilities? Do they see issues as black or white, good or evil, or are they intrigued by the nuanced spaces between? Do they have the ability to see and argue different sides of an issue—possessed of an opposable mind—or do they easily dismiss other options in favor of their predispositions? Are they deliberative or impulsive? Do they surround themselves with people who can replace them, or with those who see them as irreplaceable? Are they curious, or are they certain? Are the unknowns a source of fear, or a venue of creative opportunity? These are the questions we should all ask of ourselves and of those we choose as our leaders. These are the considerations that produce judgments over decisions and protect us all from the certainty trap.