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Illustration by iStock; Security Management

Editor’s Note: ‘Uncertainty is Wisdom in Motion’

Security professionals are supposed to make the correct decision in times of crisis—lives and livelihoods depend on it. However, according to a new book Uncertain: The Wisdom and Wonder of Being Unsure by Maggie Jackson, uncertainty can be a counterintuitive superpower that can be fostered and encouraged.

Jackson contends that relying on expertise can lead even the smartest people astray. “The mind is far more than machine,” she writes. “Superior thinking under fire demands much more than push-button shortcuts. And the very know-how that makes us expert is all too often our downfall.”

This is because the human mind loves a smooth and well-trod path. “Once people master one particular method of solving a problem, they become blind to better, quicker routes to resolving a similar challenge,” writes Jackson.

The fast pace of change also contributes to this tendency towards poor decision making. “In an all-out drive for an answer, people typically spring into action based on what first comes to mind and thus too often wind up seeing the world through the lens of what they already know,” Jackson notes. “What follows is a ‘cognitive entrenchment’ that deepens with experience. Tweak the rules of the game that someone has spent years mastering, and they are prone to perform at a loss.”

And, as the world becomes more dangerous and less predictable, people—even experts—make mistakes, especially when they rely on old, inflexible, and often siloed solutions.

“When faced with new, messy problems, routine experts barrel on with well-oiled assumptions that form the bedrock of competence in predictable times,” writes Jackson. “This is why years of experience are weakly or even negatively correlated with skill and accuracy in fields from chess to finance. In one large experiment, senior auditors were worse on average than undergraduate accounting students at spotting unusual problems, such as embezzlement, in the account books.”

One way to address this issue is to seek out discomfort and uncertainty or to embrace new challenges. Jackson writes that “adaptive experts inhabit the question at hand, interrogating its hidden possibilities. They spend far more time than even novices diagnosing a new, complex problem. Their gut reactions are data points, nothing more. Such experts tend to consider multiple potential roots of a predicament and then assess each possibility in numerous ways as they refine their understanding of the problem.”

In an all-out drive for an answer, people typically spring into action based on what first comes to mind and thus too often wind up seeing the world through the lens of what they already know.

The new facilitator model the ASIS Global Board of Directors has adopted as part of the association’s new strategic plan positions security in both of these critical roles—as the security expert with specialized knowledge and the outsider bringing new ideas to the C-suite or even to other industries.

ASIS’s new CEO, William “Bill” Tenney, embraces this role. In an interview with Security Management (SM), he says: “In these times, it’s necessary for security professionals to step in and use their unique perspectives to lead, rather than wait to be called on.”

“The world is a dangerous place, and it’s not getting any less risky,” Tenney tells SM. “So, I think there is a recognition among business leaders that corporate security and security professionals in general have a ton to bring to the table to make businesses more resilient, to make communities safer, and to make countries and economies work better. We are part of a noble profession, and I think that ASIS is really a leader in the corporate security space.”

At the same time, this dual vantage point connects existing ASIS members to new points of view and skills that they can apply to their jobs. For example, Tenney says that by linking intelligence professionals with corporate security, both individuals learn about risk management and analysis while synthesizing the skill sets that could make them more compelling to stakeholders and earn a more visible seat at the table.

Jackson notes that the word expert comes from the Latin verb “to try.” She notes that “in quiet times and in rough, the best thinkers look ahead for subtle signs of impending problems and deficiencies in their own thought. They operate in the borderland that routine experts shun, where hope of ease gives way not just to an expectation of trouble but to a willingness to continually take on ever-greater challenges.”

As ASIS moves into its next chapter with a new strategic plan and a new CEO, one of Jackson’s suggestions particularly applies—pointing to a bright future for the organization. “Let’s hold our knowledge lightly, even at the top of our game,” Jackson writes. “Uncertainty is wisdom in motion.”


Read the full Security Management interview with Bill Tenney here.