On Top of Mount Stupid

Entire orga­ni­za­tions also suf­fer from the Dun­ning-Kruger effect. After the first steps of trans­for­ma­tion and the first insights, they are stuck at the peak of “Mount Stu­pid”, where they enjoy all kinds of car­go cult gross­ly over­es­ti­mat­ing what they have already achieved.

Orga­ni­za­tions are made up of peo­ple and peo­ple tend to have many cog­ni­tive bias­es. One of these is the Dun­ning-Kruger effect (Wikipedia), first described by the two social psy­chol­o­gists David Dun­ning and Justin Kruger in an arti­cle pub­lished in 1999. In essence, the Dun­ning-Kruger Effect states that less com­pe­tent peo­ple tend to clear­ly over­es­ti­mate them­selves and con­se­quent­ly are not able to cor­rect­ly assess the supe­ri­or skills of tru­ly com­pe­tent peo­ple.

But when you’re incom­pe­tent, the skills you need to pro­duce a right answer are exact­ly the skills you need to rec­og­nize what a right answer is.  In log­i­cal rea­son­ing, in par­ent­ing, in man­age­ment, prob­lem solv­ing, the skills you use to pro­duce the right answer are exact­ly the same skills you use to eval­u­ate the answer.

David Dun­ning

The Dun­ning-Kruger effect leads to all sorts of heat­ed dis­cus­sions in social media, because in the age of Google every­one can acquire a lit­tle basic knowl­edge and thus quick­ly con­sid­er them­selves very com­pe­tent. How­ev­er, a deep and last­ing under­stand­ing of a top­ic and real exper­tise can only be achieved when you leave the peak of “Mount Stu­pid” behind.

The first step towards this is the real­iza­tion of not-know­ing, as attrib­uted to Socrates: “I know that I do not know!” Quite delib­er­ate­ly, “not” instead of “noth­ing” is writ­ten here, which fits bet­ter the orig­i­nal mean­ing. For Socrates, the recog­ni­tion of the lim­its of his own knowl­edge means a piece of wis­dom: “Although I do not sup­pose that either of us knows any­thing real­ly beau­ti­ful and good, I am bet­ter off than he is — for he knows noth­ing, and thinks that he knows. I nei­ther know nor think that I know.” (Pla­to: Apol­o­gy of Socrates). Wis­dom does not begin with the first bits of under­stand­ing, but only with the descent from the peak of Mount Stu­pid into the val­ley of despair.

Dunning-Kruger Effect

Of course, it is one thing if indi­vid­ual peo­ple do not over­come this peak in their devel­op­ment and then per­haps stand out through equal­ly con­fi­dent and incom­pe­tent con­tri­bu­tions to the dis­cus­sion. The oth­er, and far more trag­ic, is when entire orga­ni­za­tions pause at this peak of Mount Stu­pid in their efforts at trans­for­ma­tion and enjoy their beau­ti­ful­ly cel­e­brat­ed car­go cult.

In the South Seas there is a car­go cult of peo­ple. Dur­ing the war they saw air­planes land with lots of good mate­ri­als, and they want the same thing to hap­pen now. So they’ve arranged to imi­tate things like run­ways, to put fires along the sides of the run­ways, to make a wood­en hut for a man to sit in, with two wood­en pieces on his head like head­phones and bars of bam­boo stick­ing out like anten­nas — he’s the con­troller — and they wait for the air­planes to land. They’re doing every­thing right. The form is per­fect. It looks exact­ly the way it looked before. But it doesn’t work. No air­planes land. So I call these things car­go cult sci­ence, because they fol­low all the appar­ent pre­cepts and forms of sci­en­tif­ic inves­ti­ga­tion, but they’re miss­ing some­thing essen­tial, because the planes don’t land.

Richard Feyn­man, 1974

In order for orga­ni­za­tions not to become too com­fort­able on this peak, it takes peo­ple who are will­ing and able to crit­i­cal­ly chal­lenge the sta­tus quo again and again. This is exact­ly what court jesters and cor­po­rate rebels do, open­ing the way to a real trans­for­ma­tion beyond the com­fort­able peak of car­go cult. Change needs dis­tur­bance — espe­cial­ly when many believe they have reached their goal after the first steps and cel­e­brate for their foos­ball tables, sneak­ers and col­or­ful sticky notes.

The fun­da­men­tal cause of the trou­ble is that in the mod­ern world the stu­pid are cock­sure while the intel­li­gent are full of doubt.

Bertrand Rus­sell

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