Titanic – the ideal metaphor for false certitude

The Titanic disappeared at about 2:20 a.m. on April 15, 1912, after colliding sideways with an iceberg about 300 miles southeast of Newfoundland. It sunk in just two hours and 40 minutes. 1514 people died because the ship traveled too fast through dangerous water and lifeboats seats were only available for half the passengers and crew. In the end, this was the result of false certitude on the part of those responsible. They believed that the Titanic was unsinkable.

We also blindly rely on working hypotheses that have been determined in a specific context and have not yet been refuted. Besides, tight time frames force quick implementations. The result is false certitude of the people involved, which leads to costly rework or even the failure of an undertaking. The following points help to identify and avoid false certitude at an early stage.

  • Thinking in a team
    Cross-functional workshops with different experts across hierarchies, who quickly develop solutions, degenerate into shows where the participants present their part. Often there is not enough time and willingness to jointly consider the topics, although the required procedures are readily available: Brainstorming, Morphological Box, Mindmapping, or such particular approaches as FMEA (Failure Mode and Effects Analysis). The participants share that way their wealth of experience and stimulate out-of-the-box thinking. They complement each other’s thinking.
    The motto is: The whole is more than the sum of its parts.
  • Questioning essentially
    We develop new things based on our experiences, interests, and mental models. In doing so, we miss the fact that the abstract definitions do not always fit reality. Mathematics tells us: 1+1=2. We assume that the first one is just as clear as the second one. The plus sign alleges that both can be linked. Then, with the equal sign, it is claimed that the two can arise from the ones. But this is so only in the immaterial world – a one is equal to a one; a kilogram is equivalent to a kilogram. In the material world, however, no two things are alike – one person is not like the other; a task is always different. For this reason, we should critically examine the elements of the discussion. Groupthink disturbs open doubting in the team. For this reason, questioning should be a practical work step. The questions are: What is this all about? How did we perceive the situation? Are the context variables clear? Do our conclusions fit the task? In the end, you get a selection of possibilities and the safety of having thought outside the box.
    The motto is: We know that we know nothing.
  • Oversleeping the results
    The thinking process is after the meeting not completed. Results are available, but on the one hand, not all arguments have had a chance to be heard, and on the other hand, we continuously process the contents subconsciously. The draft is not yet in the implementation stage. This means that you can make readjustments with little effort. To enable this improvement, all participants should have the opportunity to sleep on the current status and, if necessary, make final suggestions. During sleep, we process the information and feelings we gathered during the day and move them into our long-term memory. Let us think of this nocturnal thinking as a mental check that provides us with further ideas and an emotional evaluation of the outcomes. Any additional improvements occur during the implementation based on the located influence factors.
    The motto is: Sleep a night to think about it.

Bottom line: False certitude is the enemy of a succeeded project. We feel safe that everything will go as we imagine. It is our task to ensure that we also consider unintended consequences. Our work is based on our experiences, interests, and mental models. What we do not know, we cannot manage. However, what I do not know, another team member may probably know. Since team members complement each other, we get more comprehensive solutions. To avoid errors in reasoning that result from groupthink, a step is needed that questions the results. After this critical reflection, you sleep a night to think about it. Processing the results at night generates new insights and a subsequent emotional evaluation. If the people in charge of the Titanic had processed their working hypotheses in this way, it would not have raced through the ice field, would not have hit the iceberg, and would not have sunk so quickly – or at least would have had sufficient numbers of lifeboats on board. This makes the Titanic an ideal metaphor for false certitude.

P.S: Our presuppositions lead to false certitude. We have to recognize and overcome it them.