The Dangers of Certainty Theater

We are all familiar with the “security theater” of the TSA. For example, actual research into its efficacy shows that things like taking off our shoes do very little if anything to make us safe. However, the purpose of these rules is to create the *feeling* that we are secure.

Yesterday I was listening to a podcast where¬†Shreyas Doshi¬†talked about a similar concept in the corporate world: “certainty theater.”

In certainty theater, we ask ourselves “feel good” questions like “What are the success metrics here?” and we try to rigorously and mathematically prove that we are making the right decision.

Shreyas rightly points out that while in certain situations using data and rigorous analysis to make the right decision is warranted, often we simply delude ourselves into thinking our decisions have been *proven* to be the right decisions in order to give us the *feeling* of certainty. But this feeling is an illusion.

Shreyas counters this narrative of “certainty theater” by saying it’s often perfectly fine to use our intuition to make decisions and simply move on, instead of creating organizational debt from needlessly bureaucratic metric tracking.

Interestingly, psychologists who study real-world decision-making in “natural” settings like firefighting or military operations have discovered that the vast majority of all decisions are made unconsciously on the basis of what cognitive scientists call “background knowledge.”

The difference between a seasoned firefighter and a novice is that the experienced firefighter’s unconscious mind has, over the years, gathered an immense amount of data about how fire operates in a diverse set of conditions. The firefighter cannot consciously put this unconscious wisdom into words, but they have learned to trust their intuition and often their gut feelings are windows into deeper knowledge.

The world of business is no different. So often product managers try to justify their prioritization decisions with what seems like air-tight logic and fancy frameworks. While sometimes this level of rigor is warranted, often these are just post-hoc rationalizations of what our intuition has already decided based on our background knowledge aka our business intuition.

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