Trying is the first step toward failure
– Homer Simpson
Lake Wobegon, where all the women are strong, all the men are good-looking, and all the children are above average.
– Garrison Keillor
86% of Harvard students believe they are more attractive than their classmates. 82% of drivers say they are in the top 30% of safe drivers. Most employees claim to have greater knowledge of industry facts and of their own company’s business than they actually do. Most managers overstate their understanding of these same questions by an even greater margin. Physicians overstate their confidence of accurate pneumonia diagnosis, and lawyers claim their likelihood of winning cases at better than 50% – a statistical impossibility. Salespeople are not immune either. Salespeople claim their likelihood of winning a final proposal at better than 70% which, considering there are often at least one other bidder, is a statistical impossibility.
I recently sat down with Jill Klein, Professor of Marketing at Melbourne Business School, to discuss her work, and her particular interest in some of the cognitive bias tendencies that we, humans, have when interpreting circumstances and events, and then choosing decisions based on our understandings and instincts. She pointed out that we all often suffer from an overconfidence of our abilities and knowledge on a wide range of subjects. In other words, we believe that we will be correct more often than we usually are.
There are a variety of psychological explanations for our overconfidence bias, but the most compelling reason may stem from our need to believe in our own sense of self-importance and optimism. If we recognized the statistical truth, we might be a little more pessimistic and grumpy getting out of bed in the morning.
This overconfidence bias can be a useful motivator toward driving action and initiative, and might even further our own careers and success socially, but if unchecked can lead to action in the wrong direction. Unchecked by organizational culture, managerial oversight and self-reflection, overconfidence can lead to failed endeavors and poor decisions for us and for our work.
Dr. Klein has a few actions and behaviors to help overcome decision overconfidence:
Solicit the opinion of more people. As James Surowiecki, author The Wisdom of Crowds, argued in his book, and as the game show “Who Wants to be a Millionaire” demonstrates on prime time television, when we ask a larger group their opinion on a question, their collective judgment is almost always better than our own.
Solicit your own second opinion. When we average our own second opinion with own our first opinion we are almost always headed in the right direction.
Consider the extremes. If we place our own odds of success, or effort, or time required, at X, we should also ask ourselves what we consider the extreme positive and negative boundaries of these outcomes. That consideration will likely lead toward moderation – one way or other – of how we should proceed.
Separate our “deciding” self from our “doing” self. When we acknowledge that the estimate we make, however fact-based and analytical, is not actual but hypothetical, we can temper our own judgement by visualizing what will be entailed in the “doing” of our endeavor.
After reflection and consultation, remember ultimately the doing matters. WD-40 is named for the 40th chemical concoction which worked, and according to Sir James Dyson it took him over 5000 prototypes to build the world-renowned Dyson vacuum cleaner.
Do, or do not. There is no try.