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Embrace Uncertainty

What are the three hardest words in the English language? If your mind just landed on “I love you,” the authors of Think Like a Freak would like you to reconsider. Steven D. Levitt and Stephen J. Dubner are the authors of the two bestsellers Freakonomics and SuperFreakonomics. In those books, Levitt, an economist, and Dubner, a journalist, tackle difficult questions and find surprising answers. For example, if you decide to become a drug dealer you will likely make less than minimum wage. You are statistically more likely to die while walking drunk than while driving drunk. If you play soccer you are more likely to turn pro if you are born in the first few months of the year—the January 1 cutoff for soccer enrollment in schools means that these students are just a few months older than their peers, a fact which causes coaches to play them more and provide them with more opportunities.

Thinking along these lines, Levitt and Dubner contend that the three hardest words are: “I don’t know.” The problem starts in childhood. In one experiment, children presented with questions they could not answer were far more likely to make up an answer than admit they had no idea. The issue gets more complicated, and pervasive, with age, where the inability to utter those words in the workplace can have serious negative consequences. Levitt and Dubner give examples of companies expending millions of dollars on programs that have no clear success rate because division directors were afraid to admit to the boss that the strategies might not be sound.

While “I don’t know” may be the most difficult phrase to say, it is only half the battle. The most difficult thing to do is what comes next: “I’ll find out.” Security Management can help you fulfill this promise in an industry where threats are constantly shifting. For example, this month’s cover story discusses unexpected truths about high-rise security, such as the millennial-driven transition of high-rises from “nested environments” to collective spaces. An article on a transit system’s search for the perfect, if nonexistent, surveillance program illustrates what answers security experts can uncover—or even create—through the power of research and collaboration. And we continue our focus on management topics with a story on Six Sigma, in which a pharmaceutical-shipping company finds the surprising reason customers suspect product tampering.

Levitt and Dubner warn that embracing uncertainty in the search for optimal solutions is a courageous act. They write that “the impulse to investigate can only be set free if you stop pretending to know answers that you don’t. Because the incentives to pretend are so strong, this may require some bravery on your part.” Learning from your peers in these pages can help. So, go ahead. Be brave.