Reflections on humility in business.

“Most executives aren’t nearly as smart, perceptive or customer-centric as they believe.” So argues Michael Schrage, a research fellow at the MIT Center for Digital Business, in his essay “Embrace Your Ignorance” in this issue of MIT Sloan Management Review. He notes that some managers who conduct inexpensive business experiments and testing via the Web have learned that, more often than not, their predictions about what customers want turn out to be wrong. Schrage thus encourages executives to be open to experimentation and to making decisions based on the results of experiments, rather than acting on their own limited insights and preconceptions.

Schrage isn’t the only author in this issue of MIT Sloan Management Review to point out the limits of human cognition and the foibles of the human mind. In their article “Using Simulated Experience to Make Sense of Big Data,” authors Robin M. Hogarth and Emre Soyer explain that people have difficulty interpreting complex statistical information accurately; in one experiment, Hogarth and Soyer found that even economists who were presented with a description of the findings from a regression analysis had trouble drawing accurate predictions and judgments from the description. (Fortunately, Hogarth and Soyer’s research suggests a better way: People make better decisions based on statistical analyses if they can interact with the data through simulations.) Similarly, in their article “The Power of Asking Pivotal Questions,” Paul J. H. Schoemaker and Steven Krupp examine ways that executives can improve their decision making — by asking searching questions that encourage them to seek out new information and perspectives.

Decision making isn’t the only area in which humans have limitations. In “The Dark Side of Information Technology,” Monideepa Tarafdar, John D’Arcy, Ofir Turel and Ashish Gupta describe years of research they have conducted into the effects of information technology use on people. All of our wonderful laptops, software programs and mobile devices, it turns out, don’t always make us good at managing what we do with them. The researchers found that employees can experience “technostress” — in part because the streams of information from their devices pressure the employees to multitask quickly. Managing those information flows can take a toll on employee well-being; the authors report that “in a study of organizational mobile email users, we found that 46% exhibited medium to high addiction-like symptoms” in their email use.

Taken together, these articles are humbling. As businesspeople, we don’t always know what customers want, and we deal with a flood of information that we may not fully understand or manage optimally. When it comes to important decisions, we are all constrained by our foibles. What’s a manager to do?

Here’s the good news. As Hogarth, Soyer, Schoemaker and Krupp explain, there are techniques and strategies that can improve managerial decision making. Furthermore, there’s something liberating about acknowledging that you don’t have all the answers. As Schrage observes, embracing humility opens the way for learning:

“The better business experimenters have cultivated an unusual way of adapting to their demonstrably limited powers of prediction: They’re humbled. But they make their humility empowering. They make a virtue of their fallibility. Humility invites data-driven exploration and innovation.”

Schrage is right. Awareness of our human frailties and fallibility shouldn’t discourage us. Instead, being aware of our own limitations creates opportunities to learn, to experiment, to change — and to improve.

Martha E. Mangelsdorf
Editorial Director
MIT Sloan Management Review