Think + Do » an exploration of mission-driven marketing and design

Misplaced Certainty

Illustration of a school of fish – all swimming in one direction except for one of themAs a designer, in proposals or in conversation, I have often told potential clients that the most valuable thing I provide is not the logo, or the website, or any other designed artifact or experience. The most valuable thing I provide is the confidence to move forward.

Not knowing which option of many is the one to pursue, the one that will produce the desired goals, can be debilitating. It leads to uncertainty, if not inertia.

Meet David Starr Jordan.

Jordan, a taxonomist who catalogued thousands of fish species in the late 1800s, is the central figure in Lulu Miller’s book, Why Fish Don’t Exist: A Story of Loss, Love and the Hidden Order of Life.

The book’s central theme is humanity’s often heartbreaking effort to keep chaos at bay. Miller’s fascination with Jordan’s story is in no small part due to his ability to repeatedly bounce back from devastating personal setbacks – the death of his wife, his brother, and a child, as well as the destruction of his collection of specimens (twice).

The scholar seemed to possess a “shield of optimism” that protected him from the doubts that crippled lesser men. This confidence – his middle name was self-anointed – told him that the only way out is through, as they say.

Jordan came of age in a scientific world reshaped by the work of Charles Darwin. The natural world was no longer considered fixed and unchanging. But while the taxonomist embraced the idea of evolving species, he remained quite certain that the world was still governed by hierarchy. Some creatures were better than others.

I encourage you to read the book to discover where that story leads.

Embracing curiosity over certainty

For me, one of the key takeaways of the book was this: Don’t be so certain of what you think you know.

The world is changing rapidly around us. Experiencing cognitive dissonance – the mental discomfort that results from holding conflicting beliefs, values, or attitudes – has become more frequent and jarring. When that happens, we are forced to weigh the social costs of changing our minds, or our interpretation of events, against the comfort of shaping narratives to fit long-held perceptions.

I would argue there’s never been a better time to put aside what you think you know, and ask better questions as a means of solving problems. It’s an invitation to find beauty in uncertainty – and curiosity – if not chaos.

Start at the beginning

Zen Buddhists find joy through the practice of seeing life with a beginner’s mind. They strive to drop expectations and preconceived ideas about something, and see things with fresh eyes, just like a beginner. Some might call this intellectual humility.

All too often we think more like an expert. I know the answer! Or, at least I know where to look it up. This has all been figured out already. Nothing to see here.

The problem with this kind of certainty – with assuming we know more than we do – is that it prevents us from asking better questions to get better answers. The same old thinking leads to the same old results.

Assumption audit

When an organization isn’t performing to expectations, it might undergo a brand audit – an analysis of customer awareness and perceptions, messaging, and competitors. If the website is underperforming, it might be time for a content audit. Take an inventory of everything on the site and assess whether it is relevant, current, or useful.

Like other audits, an assumption audit relies on research to uncover problems, but its focus is internal – on fundamental beliefs, values, and processes. Also, like other audits, organizations usually benefit from the fresh perspective of an outside consultant. It’s difficult to honestly examine the way you think.

The utility of assumption audits is supported by the fact that it is entirely possible to successfully address external factors like customer perceptions, and still be undermined by underlying internal assumptions and blind spots.

Assumption audits recognize that many symptoms of dysfunction are psychological in nature. The good thing about an internal cause – an organizational mental block – is that it can be faster, cheaper, and more effective to address than external causes. The result of an audit is a prescription for better long-term health and success.

By valuing curiosity over certainty, assumption audits can help organizations unlock new and better ways of doing things, providing the justifiable confidence to move forward.

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