Malcolm Gladwell and the Desire for Certainty

Bruce Henry | October 10, 2008

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I watched Malcolm Gladwell’s talk at the 2008 New Yorker Conference. It is a good talk and you should watch it. He’s talking about something he calls “the mismatch problem”.  While quite interesting, I really have nothing to say about it. Rather, I’d like to riff for a few minutes on a couple of things that he said in the talk taken completely out of context. I get to do this because… well… I’m the author.

“[It] has to do with our desire for certainty… we have a desire to impose certainty on something that is inherently uncertain.”

“We have this sense that progress, broadly speaking, has the effect of reducing uncertainty. But the opposite is true.”

– Malcolm Gladwell

What struck me about these quotes was that he’s expressing something that I see all the time in project management. That the desire for a plan that shows with certainty that things will go according to a specific schedule overrides the desire for really truthful information about the project. This desire for certainty, even a false certainty, often causes project teams to delude themselves about the realities of their projects.

In many ways, you have to admit to yourself that things are uncertain. You must embrace the uncertainty before you can begin to control a project. The harder you try to resist and force a false certainty upon the project and the project plan, the more out of control the project becomes.

The very act of trying to tightly control a project can, in the end, lead to its failure.

So open your arms. Embrace the uncertainty!