Thursday, January 17, 2008

Certainty is Overrated

"Probability is not a mere computation of odds on the dice or more complicated variants; it is the acceptance of the lack of certainty in our knowledge and the development of methods for dealing with our ignorance." - Fooled By Randomness: The Hidden Role of Chance in Life and in the Markets, Nassim Nicholas Taleb, 2005, p.x.

"Could you make a pattern out of any of this? Stitch together the seeming randomness into something that had meaning? Is that what life was about, he wondered: trying to make that pattern, to have things make sense?" - Ysabel, Guy Gavriel Kay, 2007, p. 319.

As someone who has been involved with software implementation for many years, I am ashamed to admit that I am still surprised when projects don't proceed as planned. After all, a lot of very smart people are involved in software design, business analysis, project management and the actual implementation. But inevitably, stuff happens.

Sure, we put together risk management plans, we set milestones and work breakdown structures, we work on communication strategies, and we capture experiential knowledge. We do, in short, everything humanly possible to eliminate uncertainty and randomness. In hindsight, we almost magically recognize patterns that we should have anticipated or even recognized when they were happening...but we didn't.

In the quote from Ysabel, it is a fifteen-year-old wondering about the nature of life. We might inwardly smile and think the kid has a lot to learn. In the quote from Taleb's book, we recognize the wisdom of someone with plenty of experience.

So why the surprise? Why the shock when things don't work out as planned?

The simple answer is that the fifteen-year-old is always with us, no matter how old we get chronologically. No matter how much wisdom we accumulate, no matter how experienced we might become in the ways of the world, no matter how systematic we are in our methodological skepticism, randomness and uncertainty hardly ever become our companion.

I see this in myself all the time. I look for the patterns. I try to predict. I map out the typical and common pathways.

Yes, I am more aware than ever before about what I don't know, about what can't be known, and about the utility of uncertainty. But still...what the world wants is certainty. Even if it is overrated.

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