Often wrong but never in doubt

Head and heart. Yin and yang. Logic and emotion. Left brain and right brain. Hard and soft. Tangible and intangible. Proven and unproven. Obvious and hidden. Seen and unseen. Recognized and ignored.

Our vocabulary is replete with phrases that express the dual way that we recognize, process and deal with the input that we receive in life.

In the introduction to his seminal book, Thinking, Fast and Slow, Nobel Prize winning psychologist Daniel Kahneman writes, “As we navigate our lives, we normally allow ourselves to be guided by impressions and feelings, and the confidence we have in our intuitive beliefs and preferences is usually justified.  But not always. We are often confident even when we are wrong, and an objective observer is more likely to detect our errors than we are.”  Kahneman’s observation is backed by the decades of research that he and his late partner, Amos Tversky, conducted on judgment and decision-making.


A fundamental premise of the work of Kahneman and Tversky is that our minds operate through two systems: System 1, which is automatic, intuitive and through associative memory instantly fits the sensory input we receive into whatever framework fits best based on our previous experience, and System 2, which is controlled and deliberate thought requiring attention, choice, concentration and effort that can overcome System 1’s intuitions and impulses.

So let’s add to the duality list of how we process what the world brings us the pairing “System 1 and System 2.”

File000594744442In so many ways I find the System 1/System 2 framework a challenge.  In the context of promoting strategic thinking, planning and action, I am challenged to examine to what degree premises and beliefs about the value of taking the strategic approach are intuitive but not necessarily proven or even provable, and to what degree these premises and beliefs are well-reasoned and if not proven are at least provable.

An example. Strategic planning wisdom states that organizations can achieve greater success by finding a shared a vision, developing strategies and executing the strategies to move to the vision.  Strategic planning is a prime example of what Venkatesh Guru Rao, author of Tempo: timing, tactics and strategy in narrative-driven decision-making and of the Ribbonfarm blog, describes as “calculative rationality, the classical approach to decision-making, based on goals, plans, utilities and means-end reasoning methods.”

The efficacy of strategic planning seems to be intuitive and logical.  In fact, our post This is not an infomercial presents compelling statistical evidence that strategic planning improves performance, both in quantitative and qualitative terms.


Yet a very different way proposed for finding organizational success is the  “ready, fire, aim” approach.  This was articulated a number of years ago by technology entrepreneur H. Ross Perot and has been strongly promoted by management guru Tom Peters.

Think of “ready, fire, aim” in its broadest interpretation as rapidly pushing out one or many strategies, innovations, concepts, ideas, services or products in near-prototype, beta formulation, then learning from rate of adoption, use and acceptance, and modifying rapidly, and doing this over and over, all the while improving the offering or dropping it in favor of others that find more potential.

In “ready, fire, aim,” according to Peters, “Trials and errors at a rapid rate are the only answer in chaotic times where today’s rules often negate yesterday’s – and ‘gettin’ on with getting on’ is the only path to survival/thriving.” Peters dismisses strategic planning as “not acting,” quoting Scott Simon: “Intelligent people can always come up with intelligent reasons…to do nothing.”  Likewise, Dermott Dowling of Creatovate proposes that organizations behave more like start-ups by “testing aspects of the business model and market hypothesis early and quickly.”

In his book, Ready, Fire, Aim, Michael Masterson writes, “The Ready, Fire, Aim concept is about velocity, about the profound benefits of moving from an idea into action at the fastest possible speed.”  He does add, however, “… Ready, Fire, Aim doesn’t mean reckless abandon. It doesn’t mean bolting into action before you are ready. It’s Ready, Fire, Aim, not Fire at Will.”


I want to say that “ready, fire, aim” sounds like a plausible approach.  Get an idea, concept, strategy or product, push it out into the marketplace as fast as possible, see what happens, modify based on feedback and repeat, until successful or dropped in favor of other offerings being similarly tested and refined.

But I also want to ask, beyond the anecdotal, does hard evidence of this approach’s validity exist, especially outside of the realm of the entrepreneurial start-up with no stake in the ground, center of gravity (investment, reputation, customer base, etc.) or business model?

Returning to the two modes of thinking, the problem with evaluating something like “ready, fire, aim” is that many of us are (or at least I am) predisposed to mental constructs using the strategic planning model, which in my case have become more embedded as I have explored the evidence supporting planning as a process that brings greater success.


Even aspects of some assumed payoffs from strategic planning may come into question when the System 1/System 2 dichotomy is applied. Beyond the statistically substantiated benefits of planning, which are mostly financial, others seem apparent to me based on more than four decades of experience working in the strategy domain with and in organizations.  I have previously itemized these seemingly obvious intangible benefits to include:

  • Optimizes growth and organizational development.
  • Prompts the organization to look ahead.
  • Anticipates threats.
  • Focuses resources.
  • Focuses on key points.
  • Capitalizes on opportunities.
  • Sets priorities.
  •  Identifies resource needs.

To me these benefits seem truly apparent and obvious. But Kahneman calls on us to work harder to assure that we are not accepting such propositions as truth, because we may be letting System 1 do its immediate, automatic, associative memory thing: “Strategic Planning = brings success = these additional benefits must be right.”


KahneNormal_questionmarksbman says relying on the immediate answer which System 1 gives (which often we must do to survive and function) is “lazy thinking,” especially when the stakes are high and we have the opportunity to kick in System 2 and engage in deliberate thought and question our intuition and impulses.

In my family a popular phrase is “often wrong but never in doubt.”  In light of Kahneman’s research, I am challenged to work to reduce my certainty, to go beyond the easy and seemingly obvious.  I challenge you to do the same in the name of effective strategic thinking.

P.S.  Note that Kahneman wrote, “We are often confident even when we are wrong, and an objective observer is more likely to detect our errors than we are.” That’s a call for outside facilitation of the organization’s strategic planning process.  Just sayin’!

“Between stimulus and response there is a space. In that space is our power to choose our response. In our response lies our growth and our freedom.” – Viktor Frankl