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Healthy Uncertainty


If you’re like me, you have experienced the disorientation of learning that a long-held belief is wrong. It takes a minute, doesn’t it? It’s almost like looking at an optical illusion. At first, it doesn’t make sense, but things become clearer after you stare at it for a bit. Psychologists call this “cognitive dissonance.” It’s when reality doesn’t align with your preexisting beliefs.


As Agile practitioners, one of our responsibilities is to be on the lookout for these occurrences. There are three broad scenarios to be aware of:


  1. One or two members of the team suffer cognitive dissonance

  2. One or two members don’t suffer from it

  3. The whole team suffers


As a team member, you will have the experience in scenario #3. Your job is to get over it more quickly than the others. You can facilitate a quick recovery by training yourself to keep a loose hold on your beliefs. In other words, be prepared to shed them whenever the facts conflict. It may sound easy, but it’s not.


Some call this openmindedness, but we all have cognitive biases, and research shows that we will fight hard to maintain the “truth” of those biases. It’s hardwired. Fighting evolution takes time and effort. Just as Agile practitioners must put effort into learning good meeting facilitation skills, we must develop “healthy uncertainty.” We can learn to catch ourselves fighting to hold onto what we believe in the face of counterfactual information.


Not everyone on the team will likely put in the effort to develop healthy uncertainty. If you do, your skill can save the team from going down the wrong path. There are two areas where this can be particularly troublesome for product teams:


  1. Understanding user behavior

  2. Determining the best technical approach


In both of these areas, we spend a good portion of our professional lives building up a large knowledge base. We have experienced many successes based on our understanding and have grown to trust what we know. However, we all know that the environment in which these things operate is dynamic. We cannot choose when shifts occur that render our understanding inaccurate or outdated. Shifts present themselves in their own time. When they do, we need to be ready.


The most common scenarios from above are #1 and #2. In these situations, someone makes a claim disputed by others (or another) on the team. On any team, there are power dynamics that can make this situation highly manageable or intransigent. In either case, the Agile practitioner has a role to play. If the power is on the side of the existing bias, you must encourage the people facing cognitive bias to suspend their beliefs and get curious. If the power is on the other side, you must slow the conversation and support the person (or people) trying to catch up. You may be the only person who understands what’s going on in their head.


Getting good at healthy uncertainty has the potential to pay huge dividends for your team. Taking wrong or suboptimal pathways can be very expensive. Massive work efforts have been wasted because teams ignored evidence that would have sent them along the better path. You may get it wrong and send the team on a wild goose chase. Rest assured that the cost of these chases will be tiny compared to the benefits when you get it right.


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