PRODUCTHEAD: Beliefs and uncertainty

PRODUCTHEAD: Beliefs and uncertainty

PRODUCTHEAD is a regular newsletter of product management goodness,
curated by Jock Busuttil.

i might be wrong #

every PRODUCTHEAD edition is online for you to refer back to


In business, certainty tends to be rewarded, even if artificial

Beliefs save cognitive effort and so are difficult to dislodge

The scientific method allows us to constructively try to disprove beliefs

We can retrain ourselves not to associate uncertainty with negative outcomes


Crime writers the world over are going to have to rework their nascent plot lines. It turns out that fingerprints belonging to the same person are not unique. I know. I’m shaken to the core. Even the scientific community didn’t believe it to begin with.

And now, because we’ve been forced to, we have to consider the impact this new revelation has on forensic evidence, past and future. I wonder how many people have been convicted of a crime purely on the strength of fingerprint evidence? At least a few of those convictions may be looking shakier now.

The psychology of beliefs #

We have many beliefs. They help us to make sense of a complex world more efficiently. Beliefs are energy-saving shortcuts our brains evolved to avoid the effort of figuring everything out from scratch each time.

We believe the sun will come up each morning because long ago we spotted a pattern. It saves us the anxiety each night of wondering whether the sun has gone for good, which sounds exhausting.

Beliefs are so hard to change, whether in ourselves or others, because our brains latch on to these observed patterns and are reluctant to give them up again. Imagine how hard it would be to convince even one person that the sun is going to skip tomorrow and not rise as usual. We’d have to see it to believe it.

Aside from the energy efficiency aspect of beliefs, they also provide us with a consistent sense of self. Our most entrenched beliefs anchor us when all around is uncertain and changing.

In response, the scientific method gives us a discipline for challenging our beliefs in a structured way. The hypothesis is something we believe to be true. The classical scientific method is then to try as hard as we can to demonstrate with observable evidence that the belief is not true. If we can’t, then the hypothesis may indeed be true.

Intolerance to uncertainty #

Uncertainty is, at its simplest, a state of not knowing or of being unsure. Uncertainty arises in situations that are novel (not encountered before), ambiguous or unpredictable.

For some people, uncertainty triggers anxiety or discomfort because they associate it with a negative outcome. Others see uncertainty as an opportunity to learn. Our individual tolerance to uncertainty governs whether we view uncertainty as a negative, neutral or positive thing.

How we react to uncertainty is partly a result of our beliefs. In simplistic terms, it’s understandable why someone who had a bad experience while trying something new (= uncertain) might become anxious about trying another new thing in the future. We can say that person has a low tolerance to uncertainty because they anticipate a negative outcome, and vice versa.

Manufactured certainty #

Beliefs and intolerance to uncertainty go some way to explaining why some people at companies ‘manufacture’ certainty. Beliefs provide a stable anchor in a complex, changing world; uncertainty can be uncomfortable. So in response, knowingly or otherwise, they fool themselves into believing things are more certain and known than they are in reality.

An example would be the financial model calculated in a spreadsheet with decimal precision, yet entirely based on guesses and assumptions. The formulae in the spreadsheet provide a sense of predictability, while we conveniently ignore the garbage numbers we happen to be feeding in.

Or when faced with an existential threat, the belief that ‘what worked for us in the past will work for us in the future’ can lead to dismissing the clear evidence of that threat.

Think about Blockbuster being aware of and yet choosing to ignore the emergence of Netflix and online streaming, or digital camera manufacturers with smartphones, or (manual) transcription agencies with cheap and ubiquitous AI-assisted transcription. (Hindsight, however, is always 20:20.)

The combination of their beliefs and intolerance to uncertainty made each susceptible to disruption by a more innovative company. In contrast, the innovators saw the same set of novel / unpredictable / ambiguous market conditions and instead viewed them positively as commercial opportunities to do things differently.

A different ending #

The story does not have to play out this way. The scientific method gives us a structure for constructively challenging beliefs. We can only believe that all fingerprints are unique until we see clear, reproducible evidence that this is not the case. Seeing is believing, right?

We also have to combine scientific rigour with an open mindset to entertain the possibility that our beliefs may be wrong, no matter how deep-rooted. Otherwise we can still end up dismissing the evidence presented. Sometimes seeing is not believing.

The last piece is how we react to uncertainty. Even if our intolerance to uncertainty is high and provokes a negative response, it is possible to recondition ourselves to become more tolerant.

We can run small-scale tests where we do something the usual ‘safe’ way for a few days, then force ourselves to do it differently for another few days, then compare the results. Taking learning curves into consideration, was the break from the norm overall a positive experience? Or at least, did the feared catastrophe from doing things differently fail to materialise?

Little by little, we can establish a new pattern to replace the belief that uncertainty is negative, which in turn will help to reduce the amount of discomfort we feel when encountering it.

Speak to you soon,


what to think about this week

Certainty theater

I remember when a CTO asked me for a more detailed, solution-oriented roadmap. I resisted. He asked repeatedly. I finally caved and spent twenty minutes sketching out a dozen ideas based mostly on gut feel. “John really nailed this! He has a super clear vision. We need to start on this in Q2!” Ooof…not my best work. I was participating in Certainty Theater.

Can you communicate the level of uncertainty with certainty?

[John Cutler]

Thinking In Bets

During the last half of my 20 years in poker, I developed a pair of mirror-image careers: using my behavioral science approach to teach groups of developing players about poker strategy, and using my poker background to teach business and professional groups about decision-making strategy.

Better decision-making when you don’t have all the facts

[Annie Duke]

What actually is a belief? And why is it so hard to change?

Beliefs are our brain’s way of making sense of and navigating our complex world. They are mental representations of the ways our brains expect things in our environment to behave, and how things should be related to each other—the patterns our brain expects the world to conform to. Beliefs are templates for efficient learning and are often essential for survival.

Beliefs are a slippery concept

[Ralph Lewis M.D. / Psychology Today]

Intolerance of uncertainty: help your clients to embrace the unknown using behavioral experiments

Intolerance of uncertainty is a trait measure that helps us to understand why some people find particular situations more uncomfortable than others. Some people perceive the uncertain elements of situations as being threatening – the ‘not knowing’ is uncomfortable for them. People who are high in IU are more likely to experience ambiguous situations as threatening, even if most people would believe that they are objectively safe.

Exploring why some people dislike uncertainty

[Dr Matthew Whalley / Psychology Tools]

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PRODUCTHEAD is a newsletter for product people of all varieties, and is lovingly crafted from a temporary lack of fine motor control.

Read more from Jock

The Practitioner's Guide to Product Management book cover

The Practitioner's Guide To Product Management

by Jock Busuttil

“This is a great book for Product Managers or those considering a career in Product Management.”

— Lyndsay Denton

Jock Busuttil is a product management and leadership coach, product leader and author. He has spent over two decades working with technology companies to improve their product management practices, from startups to multinationals. In 2012 Jock founded Product People Limited, which provides product management consultancy, coaching and training. Its clients include BBC, University of Cambridge, Ometria, Prolific and the UK’s Ministry of Justice and Government Digital Service (GDS). Jock holds a master’s degree in Classics from the University of Cambridge. He is the author of the popular book The Practitioner’s Guide To Product Management, which was published in January 2015 by Grand Central Publishing in the US and Piatkus in the UK. He writes the blog I Manage Products and weekly product management newsletter PRODUCTHEAD. You can find him on Mastodon, X (formerly Twitter) and LinkedIn.

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