I misspent just about every night for 7 years at an old school pool hall in Milwaukee. This was an “action” room, where a regular lineup of shady characters was perched, ready to relieve you of any excess cash that might be burdening you. Most of the betting was on pool, but it wasn’t unusual to see wagers on cards, dice, sports, weather, or the time it would take a cup of water to boil in the snack bar microwave. Basically, if two people could be found with opposing viewpoints and an American dollar, it was on.
Betting on pool is a highly calibrated affair that makes it at least theoretically possible for a rank amateur to arrange a fair match against Efren Reyes. For example, in the game of 9-ball, you can adjust the number of games each player needs to win a set, which balls win the game for each of them, who gets to break, etc.
When you bet on games of skill, you learn that the expected value of your bet depends as much on how accurately you assess your chances, and thus the handicap you negotiate, as it does on the skill itself. Gamblers that hold an inflated view of their chances (i.e., almost all gamblers) will lose money eventually, and the feedback loop is generally short. Overconfidence is folly and will be ruthlessly exploited. If I think I can beat Efren with the 5-ball and the breaks, I and my wallet will be corrected rapidly.
Toxic Certainty Syndrome – Could You Be Its Next Victim?
And yet, in the tech industry, with our motto of “strong opinions, loosely held” (also known as “strong opinions, weakly held”), we’ve glorified overconfidence. The same foolishness that would cost your money and pride in a pool hall is the stuff of legend in Silicon Valley. Stroll through an engineering office and you are likely to hear the (mostly white, mostly male) denizens making statements like:
“Only an idiot would use MongoDB.”
“We should absolutely build this using GoLang.”
“All of our users would kill for that feature.”
“Linguini’s is the worst restaurant in the world and I’d rather eat dehydrated bat vomit for the rest of my life than have lunch there again.”
The idea of strong opinions, loosely held is that you can make bombastic statements, and everyone should implicitly assume that you’ll happily change your mind in a heartbeat if new data suggests you are wrong. It is supposed to lead to a collegial, competitive environment in which ideas get a vigorous defense, the best of them survive, and no-one gets their feelings hurt in the process.
On a certain kind of team, where everyone shares that ethos, and there is very little power differential, this can work well. I’ve had the pleasure of working on teams like that, and it is all kinds of fun. When you have a handful of solid engineers that understand each other, and all of them feel free to say “you are wrong about X, that is absolutely insane, and I question your entire family structure if you believe that, clearly Y is the way to go”, and then you all happily grab lunch together (at Linguini’s), that’s a great feeling of camaraderie.
Unfortunately, that ideal is seldom achieved.
What really happens? The loudest, most bombastic engineer states their case with certainty, and that shuts down discussion. Other people either assume the loudmouth knows best, or don’t want to stick out their neck and risk criticism and shame. This is especially true if the loudmouth is senior, or there is any other power differential.
Members of your team that are from groups historically underrepresented in tech may be less likely to have experienced the collegial, open debate environment, and may feel uncertain of their position. This means you might not hear their ideas. Given the extensive research that shows diverse teams make smarter decisions, this is tragic.
Even if someone does have the courage to push back, in practice the original speaker isn’t likely to be holding their opinion as loosely as they think. Having stated their case, they are anchored to it and will look for evidence that confirms it and reject anything contradictory. It is a natural tendency to want to win the argument and be the smartest person in the room.
Finally, in most cases, the feedback loop on these decisions won’t be closed quickly. Unlike my foolish 9-ball matches, a major engineering choice might not bear full fruit for months or years, by which time we’ll have forgotten how we made the choice and what the alternatives were. There is great value in thoroughly evaluating the key alternatives up front.
This (Actually) Won’t Hurt A Bit
Fortunately, there is a remarkably simple solution to the problem, which I picked up from Dan Shapiro, our CEO at Glowforge. He tells me he inherited it from our company’s co-founder, Tony Wright. The behavior change required is very small. You can easily model it for your team by adopting it yourself, and you can easily and gently guide other people into making it a habit. It isn’t even deceptively simple, it is just … simple.
All you need to do is add a degree of uncertainty to your statements. For example:
“I’m 90% sure we shouldn’t try to build our own social network.”
“I’m 50/50 on whether to do this with Cloud SQL or Cloud Datastore.”
“I have a low conviction hunch that the airplane icon will work better than the gift box.”
The effect of adding this qualification is twofold. First, you’ll keep your own mind much more open. As world-class poker player Annie Duke points out in Thinking in Bets, even if you start at 90%, your ego will have a much easier time with a reversal than if you have committed to absolute, eternal certainty. You can safely update your beliefs and say “Hmm, you make a good point. Now I’m only 60% sure.”
Second, the folks around you will now feel invited to participate. When the opinion that you express has explicit room to evolve, they know there is going to be a respectful space to share their own ideas. If you are a leader, this is also a useful management tool, because it helps to calibrate your team as to how much effort they should put into alternatives. If you are already 90% sure, there is less reason to invest in counterarguments than if you are simply throwing a guess into the pot.
So, what about the situation where someone else goes first and makes an absolute statement? There is a simple ninja move! Just say “It sounds like you are 100% sure of that, is that right?” If the answer is yes, you can ask them to explain why they are certain and see if they have any data to back it up. If not, you’ll have prompted them to assess their actual level of conviction, sharpen their thinking, and open up the conversation. It is a simple, kind way of helping them develop a style of thinking and communication that will improve your organization.
One last point. If you have been an engineer for a while and are accustomed to the strong opinions, loosely held mindset, it can be easy and even more disastrous to bring it home with you. I may have had a significant other or three tell me that my certainty was obnoxious. Honestly, I thought I was being funny, and I took for granted that anyone else would feel free to put forward their own opinions. But hey, it has only taken me 30 years or so to get the message and start to work on it! I’m 80% sure it is helping.