Most peo­ple are famil­iar with the famous Bertrand Rus­sell Quote, “The whole prob­lem with the world is that fools and fanat­ics are always so cer­tain of them­selves, and wiser peo­ple so full of doubts.” The chal­lenge is how would you under­stand where you are in that par­a­digm? Are you the fool or are you the wise? How do you even know your real level of com­pe­tence at any one moment? What is the dif­fer­ence between an expert and the aver­age person?

One of the most famous psy­cho­log­i­cal stud­ies in the last few years is the Dunning-Kruger Effect. Its best descrip­tion is:

The Dunning–Kruger effect is a cog­ni­tive bias in which unskilled peo­ple make poor deci­sions and reach erro­neous con­clu­sions, but their incom­pe­tence denies them the metacog­ni­tive abil­ity to rec­og­nize their mis­takes. The unskilled there­fore suf­fer from illu­sory supe­ri­or­ity, rat­ing their abil­ity as above aver­age, much higher than it actu­ally is, while the highly skilled under­rate their own abil­i­ties, suf­fer­ing from illu­sory infe­ri­or­ity. To put sim­ply, when you don’t know what you don’t know, you have no abil­ity to dif­fer­en­ti­ate what is right or wrong.

Con­fi­dence is a tricky thing, as you need it to be able to stand up to chal­lengers, but at the same time you need to be care­ful to not inflate it based on impres­sion and not real­ity. With­out con­fi­dence, we would never be able to con­vince oth­ers of any point we are try­ing to make. We have all dealt with peo­ple who obvi­ously talked much more about their impact then could pos­si­bly be based on real­ity, but how do we know that we are not repeat­ing the same mis­take. Even worse, how do we know when oth­ers are play­ing on this psy­cho­log­i­cal trick to take advan­tage of us, even if they do not con­sciously know they are doing it at the time?

The truth is that you will find far fewer real experts then those that claim to be. Sta­tis­ti­cally, an expert would be in the upper 5 or 10% of a cer­tain field, yet we both have no way of mea­sur­ing this and we are over run with experts claim­ing to be the best at what they do. Every­one thinks that what they are doing is the best way, oth­er­wise they wouldn’t be doing it. Even worse, we get caught up in all sorts of promises, be it other cus­tomers claims, or their own skill set to eval­u­ate that infor­ma­tion. As the world becomes more com­plex, or as peo­ple from out­side dis­ci­plines attempt to take their prior knowl­edge and apply it to a new field, they become even more sus­cep­ti­ble to this prob­lem. Even worse, like all biases, this impacts the more intel­li­gent peo­ple more then the less intel­li­gent. Dunning-Kruger is a dou­ble edged sword, as those that are most likely to be sus­cep­ti­ble to the claims of experts are those that are least skilled in their own right:

“The skills needed to pro­duce log­i­cally sound argu­ments, for instance, are the same skills that are nec­es­sary to rec­og­nize when a log­i­cally sound argu­ment has been made. Thus, if peo­ple lack the skills to pro­duce cor­rect answers, they are also cursed with an inabil­ity to know when their answers, or any­one else’s, are right or wrong. They can­not rec­og­nize their responses as mis­taken, or other people’s responses as supe­rior to their own.”

This entire phe­nom­e­non is what causes the vicious cycles and what explains the over sat­u­ra­tion in the ana­lyt­ics com­mu­ni­ties of peo­ple prop­a­gat­ing the same tired actions by giv­ing them new names and by find­ing oth­ers to make them feel good about their failed actions. Sto­ries become the ulti­mate short­cut to show how amaz­ing some­thing is, with­out ever actu­ally pro­vid­ing log­i­cal evi­dence to arrive at that con­clu­sion. The truth is that peo­ple are rewarded for their abil­ity to give peo­ple who already hold or held power ways to con­tinue to run their empire, often with lit­tle rel­e­vance to get­ting results or to doing the right thing. This is cer­tainly not unique to ana­lyt­ics, but it is impor­tant to this audi­ence. We fol­low the great­est speak­ers, not the great­est thinkers. We worry about the best ways to make a pre­sen­ta­tion or to get reports out, not try­ing to stop entire con­ver­sa­tions that are both neg­a­tive to the orga­ni­za­tion and inef­fi­cient. We focus on how do we get oth­ers to see things our way, not on if we are see­ing things the right way? Far more time is spent on how to con­vince oth­ers then it is on try­ing to ana­lyze our own actions. One of the best quotes I have heard is, “There is no cor­re­la­tion between being a great speaker and hav­ing great ideas.”

So in the end, we are respon­si­ble to our­selves to look in the mir­ror and ask if we are suf­fer­ing from a belief in oth­ers, or if we are dis­cov­er­ing the best answers. Is con­vinc­ing oth­ers and your­self that you are expert the most impor­tant action you can take? Just because you can make an analy­sis and use it to con­vince oth­ers, does that actu­ally make it cor­rect or valu­able? Or is the dis­cov­ery of the next right answer more impor­tant then get­ting credit for own­ing an action? It is up to every­one to decide what they really want to accom­plish in their time, but if you are more inter­ested in doing the right thing, then you must always be aware of Dunning-Kruger.

In order to do this, we must first set rules that help us hold our­selves and oth­ers account­able for what they do, in order to remove as much bias from eval­u­at­ing suc­cess as possible.

Here are some sim­ple steps to help make sure you are reach­ing the lev­els of suc­cess that you might believe that you are achieving:

1) Always ask, “In what ways can we chal­lenge what we are doing?” or “How can I break this process”? No gain comes from doing things the exact same way you have been doing them.

2) Read, grow, look beyond your group. Know that you have never found the right answer, and the search is more impor­tant than the actual answer.

3) Define suc­cess up front. This is not just the goals your boss sets for you, but more impor­tantly what it is that will define a suc­cess­ful program?

4) Make sure you are not mea­sur­ing the out­come, but your influ­ence on the outcome.

5) Seek out those that will chal­lenge every­thing you believe. You do not need to agree, but only talk­ing to like minded peo­ple is the fastest way to become the observed with Dun­ning – Kruger.

6) Assume that if you have not found a way to break a process in the last year or two, that you are not try­ing hard enough

7) Chal­lenge every­one to take an idea to the next level. The first thing we come up with is com­fort­able. The next is growth.

8) Know that you will get an out­come from any action, so mea­sur­ing just that does not tell you any­thing about the value you bring

9) If the words “I don’t know” are the end of the con­ver­sa­tion for you, then you can be sure you are the suf­ferer of this bias.

10) Most impor­tantly, change all the rules, and chal­lenge all the rules, not to be dif­fi­cult, but because you only get bet­ter by mak­ing oth­ers around you better.

These may seem like abstract gen­eral con­cepts and not directly related to your busi­ness or your day to day job, but the real­ity is that these are the actions that should define suc­cess there far more then the out­side world. Growth is the goal, not the sta­tus quo, and as such we need to make change and going out of our com­fort zones the pri­or­ity, not re-wording past actions as new in order to con­vince oth­ers or your­self you have changed. Take oth­ers past their com­fort zone and they will take you past your own. Keep get­ting bet­ter, and always know that you are never done and that you do not have the “cor­rect” answer. Keep search­ing, and always ques­tion those around you, and you will always be vig­i­lant against falling into the wrong end of Dun­ning — Kruger.

Test­ing can be the ulti­mate expres­sion of this, you are free to test things far past your cur­rent com­fort zone. You are free to not val­i­date tired ideas but to explore and dis­cover in a ratio­nal and pre­de­ter­mined way the actual value of things, not just the per­ceived value. In order to do this though, you must fun­da­men­tally want and pre­pare to dis­cover these things. The great­est prob­lem with most test pro­grams is they never enable them­selves to find out they are wrong, but instead focus on prov­ing some­one right.

The nice part is that just because you or some­one you know suf­fers from Dun­ning – Kruger, it does not mean they always will. Every per­son you meet thinks they are doing the right thing, even when they are not. Change the con­ver­sa­tion to the end goal, and talk about all the options that are in front of you, and you get past the egos that keep con­ver­sa­tions from truly mov­ing for­ward. Take the time to talk and to chal­lenge peo­ple, and do not trust any­one that does not chal­lenge you. You have many impar­tial tools that allow you to mea­sure things and to work with oth­ers, but these tools only work when we use them in an unbi­ased man­ner, not to tell us what we want to hear.