Peter Drucker often turned to the humanities for lessons about management. And so it was that we read with particular interest a piece in last Sunday’s New York Times by essayist Phillip Lopate, who directs the graduate nonfiction program at Columbia University. In it, he identified doubt as an integral component of his work.
“Argumentation is a good skill to have, but the real argument should be with oneself,” Lopate wrote. “Doubt is my boon companion, the faithful St. Bernard ever at my side. Whether writing essays or just going about daily life, I am constantly second-guessing myself.”
Lopate pointed out that maintaining such a posture doesn’t prevent action. “If you really become friends with your doubt,” he explained, “you can go ahead and take risks, knowing you will be questioning yourself at every turn, no matter what.”
This outlook would have appealed to Drucker, who understood that the world of business and management (not unlike the world of crafting essays) is one of constant doubt—that is, acting in the face of incomplete certainty. Indeed, good decision-making, he noted in The Effective Executive, is rarely a choice between right and wrong. “It is at best a choice between ‘almost right’ and ‘probably wrong’—but much more often a choice between two courses of action neither of which is provably more nearly right than the other,” he wrote.
This is why an executive must listen closely to different points of view—a notion that we’ve explored before. “No matter how high his emotions run, no matter how certain he is that the other side is completely wrong and has no case at all, the executive who wants to make the right decision forces himself to see opposition as his means to think through the alternatives,” Drucker observed. “He uses conflict of opinion as his tool to make sure all major aspects of an important matter are looked at carefully.”
Or, as he put it in Concept of the Corporation, “We know, in other words, that we do not know the answers. But we also know that to be dogmatic is the wrong answer.”
What role does doubt play in your decision-making?