Have you ever felt compelled to provide an answer to a senior leader with confidence and certainty, even when you didn’t know the answer?

From startups to enterprises, in the private and public sectors, the concept of admitting, “I don’t know,” feels career ending. In our effort to appease leaders in what we think they want, it feels we’ve made a terrible mistake culturally in that we no longer feel comfortable to admit when we don’t have an answer. We will resort to assumptions, partial-knowledge, and half-truths that we present as facts because of a cultural tradition that expects an answer.

In doing so, we’ve robbed ourselves of our ability to explore and understand context to really solve problems and answer questions grounded in more than well-intentioned assumptions.

I call this obsession with providing answers the “Culture of Certainty.” This culture deprioritizes learning and nuance in favor of appearing unambiguously right. We contort facts out of previously stated answers without rigorous foundations rooted in evidence to support it, all for the sake of avoiding appearing incompetent. Yet, I think we’ve over-indexed toward a toxic behavior that has led us to stifle innovation and growth that modern organizations desperately need.

While consulting with a large retailer in 2022 that touted their income and profit through 2020 and 2021, and were struggling to continue growing their revenue, I posed a simple question:

Given the success of your firm over the past two years, what amount of your increased revenue can you attribute to your business strategy, as opposed to consumers being flush with pandemic stimulus cash?

It was an uncomfortable question, and after some probing, some half-truth rooted in this Culture of Certainty, I finally got a senior leader to admit that they did not know the answer. We celebrated. How freeing it felt to not have to feel compelled to know an answer, and for the leader to be inspired by genuine curiosity on how they could even determine that split? Surely, some of their business strategy was responsible, but predominantly, upon looking at favorable macroeconomic conditions, the burgeoning profits of many large retailers at the time in their industry, it was clear, maybe they didn’t do much, and there were just favorable conditions. It was a lightbulb moment. This Culture of Certainty had robbed the organization of doing deep examination and understanding of what drove the success of their business.

I wish I could tell you this was an unusual circumstance; however, I’ve found that this is a common trend that I’ve experienced in my professional career. I cannot blame executives and leaders, because we live in a world that demands certainty and predictability; however, if the pandemic left one lesson with us, it’s that the world is anything but certain, and predictability is an illusion that can be shattered at any time.

Often, this behavior, which is not unique, causes us to undervalue the massive amount of data we have at our disposal in organizations. We create false narratives to get a quick answer, and we feed our own hubris because we want to provide an answer, and to have these answers reinforce the assumptions we make along the way. This desire for certainty causes us to focus on driving forward unvetted solutions, rather than understanding the root cause and context of problems our organizations are meant to solve. I think this is wrong, and it’s driving unsustainable practices in our organizations.

We do this because we root our assumptions in our experiences and expertise that we develop overtime. These assumptions and certain answers aren’t precisely invalid, but they miss a lot of context that is often necessary, and we tend to only touch the symptoms, and not the root cause problems, thereby ending up just affixing a band-aid, when what we really need is a full surgical solution. We need the diversity of perspectives that are focused on a fundamental root problem, and are informed by great qualitative and quantitative data. I call the transition to this trend the “Culture of Clarity.”

Shifting from certainty to clarity

Albert Einstein is attributed to stating, “if I had an hour to solve a problem I’d spend 55 minutes thinking about the problem and five minutes thinking about solutions.” This approach to thinking of solutions is the epitome of a Culture of Clarity that seeks to fully understand a problem, and then define solutions to that problem. We disavow ourselves of Certainty, and instead, we seek Clarity about the problem, and turn assumptions into evidence-supported facts, or understand logical leaps we make and why, and declare them as such. We’ll never get rid of assumptions, but we can be more precise about declaring facts vs. assumptions.

The principles behind Product Management lean into this kind of uncertainty through exercises like assumption mapping, customer interviews, and experimentation to vet hypotheses. We focus on clarifying problems versus presenting our assumptions as facts. The practice of product management avoids giving answers when we don’t know, and instead embraces an ethos that shares what we do know and where we need to do more investigation. Framed this way, I think senior leaders typically appreciate the candor because it reflects the amount of thought we’re expected to put into our work.

To foster this transition to a Culture of Clarity, leaders should help their teams address whether or not the answers they provide are rooted in facts, or if they are assumptions being presented as certain facts. Leaders should ask their reports, “what evidence is supporting your answer, or is this an assumption we’ve made?”

Start meetings by asking, “what are we unsure about regarding this topic/project?” Leaders can look for ways to implement structure processes for surfacing assumptions like Assumption Mapping, Pre-mortem exercises, or setting up dedicated red-teams. Help your team determine clear criteria on what constitutes sufficient evidence to support decisions. When leaders allow their teams to focus on understanding the context of a problem, they empower their team to work in new ways that inspire knowledge building, and allow them to collaborate with evidence-based research that will lead to better solutions longer term.

Conversely, individual contributors can also coach upward for their leaders and provide more nuance to statements about what they know, they evidence they have to support that knowledge, and advising what additional knowledge they need to uncover in order to ensure they have the context needed to solve the root problem.

It’s my experience that the businesses that drive the most value aren’t the ones churning out features at breakneck speed, but rather the ones that focus on solving systemic problems for their customers and users that provide meaningful value they’re willing to pay for.

From feigning confidence to building confidence and agility

I recognize that this is uncomfortable. It’s a formidable shift to make mentally, and it inherently feels like it’s going to slow progress down. It will, and it must. Asking the right questions early on gets you to failure faster on bad ideas, and helps you spend less time on the wrong things to uncover the right ways to a solution. This isn’t an excuse for inaction, but rather prioritization and tackling the high-impact knowledge gaps before progressing initiatives.

Sure, it might take longer to drive to the right solution, but you’ll spend a lot less time on solutions that won’t provide any value to your customers, and end up as a drag on your business. A Culture of Clarity means we focus on the high-value work rooted in building confidence instead of feigning confidence. It drives open and respectful dialogue across teams, and it might cause additional conflict as candor becomes prized, but it can unlock the collective intelligence and collaboration that can strengthen organizational cohesion around shared goals and a uniting mission.

As an added benefit, if you’ve read the findings of Google’s Project Aristotle, a Culture of Clarity can help your team build psychological safety, because suddenly humility can be embraced. Teams of people can share what they don’t know, and determine methods for uncovering answers, rather than feigning confidence and recommending solutions that might be a waste of time. In fact, you’ll find that psychologically safe teams often result in teams that have healthier and more conflict, because there’s an openness to calling out assumptions and asking for more evidence to factual-sounding statements. This results in collaboration and cross-functional work within and across teams, because we’re focused on ensuring we provide answers rooted in evidence.

Ultimately, organizations anchored in certainty tend to calcify, while those embracing clarity typically stay much more agile. Clarity nurtures learning and discovery where teams work to understand the context of a problem, unlocking innovation through rapid experiments and data gathering. These teams often feel more rewarded by their work as well. If the pandemic taught us anything, it’s that we should abandon our illusions of predictability and certainty, and trade this rigidity for the excitement and energy that embracing a journey toward clarity provides.

Are you stuck in a culture of certainty?

If your organization feels stuck, and you’re continuing to push features that seem to fail in the marketplace, perhaps you’re stuck in the Culture of Certainty. That’s okay, because you’re not alone!

Test Double’s product management consulting team has been helping our clients break apart this problem, and we coach teams to unlock the ability to seek answers through clarifying questions and data-driven evidence that have helped make their organizations better at building solutions that truly solve problems for their customers, maximize the value of their business, and return value to their bottom lines.

If you feel your organization is struggling with not embracing a culture of clarity, check out our Product Office hours for a free personalized business consultation and see how we might be able to help!

Michael Toland

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Double Agent
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Columbus, OH