Thinking Managers

Edward de Bono of looks at the difference between possibility and probability.
While one widens your horizons the other restricts it.

Possibility and Probability

Everyone looks for truth. But sometimes it is necessary to use speculation, hypothesis and fantasy on the way.

Before we take action, we like to feel that we know the truth. However, this can’t always be the case and so we might need to take action before we are certain of the truth. This means our actions are often based around minimising risk.

You need special management skills to deal with uncertainty. It is always commendable to seek the truth but we also need to be able to act on uncertainties and half-truths.

There are people who are very good at managing in situations when things are going very well. There are also people who are good at managing when things are going badly. However, not so many people can manage well in times of great uncertainty. It can be hard to make decisions and plans when the present is uncertain – a high level of management skill is required.

We are used to the uncertainty associated with the future, but we are not so comfortable when there is a degree of uncertainty about the present.

How should rumours be dealt with? A rumour could be a half-truth or a lie. The word ‘rumour’ tells us that we should pay attention to it but perhaps not fully believe it. Although ‘rumour’ clearly describes uncertainty of information, there is no equivalent term for action in a situation of uncertainty. We can think of lots of possibilities and ‘maybes’. They then become the environment for our thinking, decisions and actions. We don’t act on uncertainties, but they nonetheless influence our actions and help us devise safeguards.

The word ‘possible’ could describe something that is low in probability, but it is better to treat it as something totally different. ‘Possible’ should mean just that – something that is possible. The scale of probability is not relevant. You could have a probable hypothesis which is reasonable but unproved. You could have a possible hypothesis which is only speculation.

The scan for possibility should be as wide as possible. Your management skills need to be developed to the point where you look at all possibilities when considering explanations. Once a possibility is seen, then that you can find things that support that possibility. When you look for ‘probable’ explanations, you limit yourself to your present perceptions and knowledge, which are the foundations for any judgment of probability.

‘Possibility’ widens your perception, while ‘probability’ narrows it.

About the author
Edward de Bono is the world’s leading authority in the field of creative thinking and the teaching of thinking as a skill.