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  • John Kingston

Prove or Improve

Updated: Jun 18, 2021

The parties in a courtroom know the standard of proof for facts that is expected there. It is seldom so clear in the workplace, and often the standard will vary even within the same piece of work or conversation. These subtle, dynamic shifts are highly skilled. Sometimes we won’t notice when we lower the bar for things that we find helpful to believe, and raise it for inconvenient truths. Confirmation bias in action, perhaps. Reflection can help—pressure of work permitting—to avoid so-called Type 3 errors: unintentionally solving the wrong problem. However, being unaware that we are shifting the standard of proof is part of the behaviour. This is what Chris Argyris called skilled unawareness. It makes it hard for us to spot our own Type 3 errors, even, or perhaps especially, when the ‘error’ is deliberate and self-serving. We can fool ourselves into ignoring the right problem by focusing on the wrong one. Proof cements attention, and when attached to the wrong problem, it allows the right problem to hide in plain sight. So, having fooled ourselves, we can, unfortunately, fool others by serving-up convincing proof about the wrong problem. Operator errors can be abused this way. There’s almost always proof of operator error, and putting the spotlight there leaves the rest of stage, and the rest of the cast, in the shadows. (The ‘Tale of Two Stories’ describes this well.) We can’t give up proof, but maybe we can practice continuous improvement more often and more imaginatively.

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