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Doubt: A Best Practice in Managing Change?

It’s tempting to think that doubt is the enemy of visionary leadership and transformational change. Maybe that needs another look.

Malcolm Gladwell recently reviewed a new biography of the economist Albert O. Hirschman in The New Yorker (“The Gift of Doubt,” June 24, 2013). Hirschman was “a planner who saw virtue in the fact that nothing went as planned.” One theme of his work is the creativity that emerges–under the right circumstances–when things fail to work out as planned. As Gladwell describes it:

The entrepreneur takes risks but does not see himself as a risk-taker, because he operates under the useful delusion that what he’s [sic] attempting is not risky. Then, trapped in mid-mountain, people discover the truth–and, because it is too late to turn back, they’re forced to finish the job.

Success, in other words, comes at least sometimes from failure. Or in Nietzche’s dictum, “That which does not destroy me, makes me stronger.”

If, as Hirschman believed, this is a general principle–if, in other words, Murphy’s law ALWAYS applies–isn’t there a lesson here for change managers? Why should we be surprised when the plan doesn’t go well? Why should dealing with that eventuality produce a back-up or contingency plan, instead of being an essential part of the original planning? Why do we hope that, with heroic change-champions and effective cheerleading, that we will beat the odds?

While no one likes a nay-sayer, perhaps some quotient of doubt–“this may not work”; “things may go wrong”; “we may not be anticipating all the potential problems”–is essential to effective execution of change. And what if the realistic assessment of doubt and the diplomatic but direct communication of risk are as important a part of the change agent’s role as optimism, confidence, and persuasion?

5 Comments Post a comment
  1. I agree, optimist is an incredibly skill for a leader to show each and everyday. The mood a leader sets will determine how the team reacts to situations. On this topic, doubt is merely just concern; concern for the well-being of the business and that is important for the success of a company.

    Thank you for posting this!

    -Michael Dooley

    August 28, 2013
    • I appreciate your reply, Michael. I like what you point out but would phrase it differently: concern for the well-being of the business requires some respect for doubt and risk, to which one can be blinded by unthinking optimism.

      September 3, 2013
  2. Thanks for sharing. This topic is set to be a forthcoming piece on my end, too. We, (corporate brands) have a lot of internal optimists and naysayers who delver the company’s successes (and, perhaps failures). I think there can be no doubt that the due-diligence of assessing plans by way of doubt is a good thing. Maybe a framework for assessing through perspective taking and “doubt” is in order. I’d be interested in discussing further with you Phil…

    August 28, 2013
    • Thanks for your reply, Brent. One of the problems is that “doubt” is a loaded word in our culture. I’m wondering whether it all comes down to actively managing risks along the way–despite the tendency to relax our attention to risk potential when things are going well. “Manage your risks” is a far easier message to swallow than “Cultivate your doubts.” But we really have to do it, no kidding.

      September 3, 2013
  3. I believe that examining both sides of the coin is wise in any important decision or action. We can be blinded by our vision of what we seek and not be realistic about the potential for unexpected, and if “doubted” effectively, expected possible outcomes. That is why we carry a spare tire. I suggest that you read the book “Decisive” by Chip and Dan Heath as they present techniques for mitigating risk and making effective decisions. One of their key points is “Prepare to be Wrong”. If you want to get a summary of the key ideas in this book, and others they have written, go to and register.

    September 3, 2013

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