posted 4 Mar 2009 in Volume 12 Issue 5
Thought leader: Against certainty
Personally, I wanted to cheer. At last, here was someone who dared to admit that when the facts changed, one should change one’s stance. For eight years, the White House has been notorious for the steely rigidity of its positions and the blinders it has worn to screen out divergent opinions, even on scientific and medical matters, as well as political and economic policies. President Bush has worn certainty as a shield of honour, and clings to it even as he leaves office, with ‘his head held high’.
He’s not alone, of course. From an early age, most of us are deeply indoctrinated in the cult of ‘certainty’. In school we are supposed to be sure of the answer (even if we’re not always right). Our opinions are supposed to be fixed and well-defined.
In our public discourse and in politics, uncertainty is seen as the sign of an inferior mind. When politicians change their position it’s called ‘waffling’ and is seen as a sign of weakness or lack of moral fibre. It is the way we in the West believe things should be done. And look at where it’s led us.
But uncertainty is not error, and to admit uncertainty is not a road to failure, but a launching pad for better decisions. Admitting uncertainty – especially in uncertain times – is a necessary first step towards intelligent decision-making. And even if you secretly think your mind is made up, there is great power in exposing yourself to divergent opinions. It’s always surprising how much we can learn from those who don’t agree with us.
Knowledge management practitioners – especially those who have a foot in the organisational development field – understand that beginning with an attitude of uncertainty or open-mindedness is a far more productive stance towards the creation of new knowledge and valuable solutions.
‘Mere’ conversation? Simple conversation has the potential to be an enormous force for change in all organisations. When moderated, using a talking stick or some other discipline, it’s called ‘dialogue’, but it’s still conversation. Appreciative inquiry is a powerful group method, which begins with an exploration of ‘life giving forces,’ or ‘what’s going right’. It begins with an open mind.
It’s interesting to note that the acceptance of uncertainty is much more than a psychological stance or trick. It’s actually the way things are. The famed philosopher Karl Popper showed that scientific statements are not truly verifiable. What makes them scientific, in fact, is not their truth or verifiability. It is, paradoxically, their ‘falsifiability.’
When we finally grow up to be adults, we learn that we do, indeed, live in a world of uncertainty; we should use that truth to find our way.
Neil Olonoff is a knowledge management and organisational development consultant and currently KM lead at the Knowledge Management Office of the US Army G-4 (Logistics). He can be contacted at Olonoff@gmail.com