The media and business worlds love experts with strong opinions and the ability to explain them confidently and authoritatively. We hear them on TV and read them in newspapers and online every day. Yet a 20-year study shows that these are the very people who are least likely to be accurate in predicting what will happen in the future.
In 1984, Philip Tetlock commenced a study to examine the accuracy of expert predictions. He found these experts fell into two main groups that he called foxes, who know many things, and hedgehogs who know one big thing. Foxes draw on many ideas and sources of information and are quite tolerant of uncertainty and ambiguity. Hedgehogs tend to interpret the world using their favourite theory or dogma and are very confident in the ‘rightness’ of their view of the world.[Tschoegl et. al. 2007]
Tetlock, a psychologist, is Professor of Leadership at the Haas School of Business at the University of California, Berkeley. His research found that, in the main, experts were no more accurate in their predictions than ‘a monkey throwing darts’. But he clearly showed that foxes produce much more accurate forecasts than hedgehogs. He also found that when faced with their erroneous forecasts, foxes tended to acknowledge their error and adjust their thinking. Hedgehogs, on the other hand, rationalise their errors away on the basis that they were ‘nearly right’ or ‘unpredictable events interfered in the outcome’ or by pointing to the few occasions when they had got it right.
The implications of this research are many, but one that that reinforces my own experience is to be wary of highly confident people proclaiming a view and running down those with alternative perspectives.
It’s my view that Tetlock’s findings are also relevant in our organisations. We love to treated complex (wicked) problems as if they are technical problems that can be predicted and solved. The experts who stridently proclaim their opinions as being facts are often wrong. The people who stride the corridors and make the most noise are not necessarily the stars. The leaders who are most confident they are excellent at leading people are often the worst leaders.
In media and in organisations, the hedgehogs get the airtime. But the foxes are the ones to listen to.
- Tetlock, P. (2005): Expert Political Judgement: How good is it? How Can We Know?, Princeton University Press.
- Gardner, D. (2011): Future babble: Why Expert Predictions are Next to Worthless, and You can do better, Dutton, London.
- Tschoegl, A.E and Armstrong, S., Review of Philip E. Tetlock: (2007): “Expert political judgment: How good is it? How can we know?” in International Journal of Forecasting, Volume 23, Issue 2, 2007, pages 339-342
Smart people hate to be told what to do or say. Yet way too often leaders are given a standard set of powerpoint slides or even a script and are asked to share these pearls with their colleagues. Enthusiasm, and authenticity, plummets.
There’s definitely a better way. A few months ago I was teaching 150 leaders from a pharmaceutical company how to tell their strategic story. After everyone quickly learned the story and then told it to a colleague I asked the whole group if there was anything in the story they didn’t like. There was clearly a heated conversation happening in the middle of the room as a woman shot her hand up and pointed to her colleague. He was given the microphone, stood to address the crowd, and then paragraph by paragraph pointed out the things that niggled him. When he finished I just said, “no problems, just tell it how you would like.”
Strategic stories should be like an original music score and every leader should be able to create and deliver their own arrangement. If you’re a jazz guy you do the jazz arrangement. If country and western is your thing then you go with that. You add your own anecdotes to bring it to life and as long as it is recognisable as the original score, then it’s an effective strategic story.