Imagine this.

You have a bucket containing 90 snooker balls. You are told that 30 of the balls are definitely red, and the other 60 are an unknown combination of yellow and black. You cannot see inside the bucket.

You are then told you can win some cash.

All you have to do is take a ball from the bucket, predicting whether it will be red or black.

If the ball you take matches the colour you predicted, you win £100. If it doesn’t, you get nothing.

What’s your choice?

This sounds like a game, but it’s actually an experiment devised by an economist called Daniel Ellsberg in 1961. If your gut reaction is to chose red, you’re in good company. Ellsberg’s results showed that participants in this game were more likely to choose red than black.

However, the laws of probability show that you would be just as likely to draw a black ball as a red one. The fact that you don’t know the number of black balls is mathematically irrelevant.

So it seems there is an interesting human behaviour at play here; a cognitive bias that railroads our decision making away from uncertainty. Because the number of red balls is definite but the number of black balls is not, we tend to choose red, even though the chances of choosing black are the same.

This behaviour is now commonly referred to as ambiguity aversion, and has been proven experimentally in many different scenarios.

So what does this mean for you as a change agent in your organisation?

Well, if we have an aversion to the unknown, then the often lamented lack of appetite for wholesale change in corporate institutions is totally explicable. There are literally hundreds of people who collectively prefer the certainty of their suboptimal but well known work processes (choose the red ball) over adopting unknown new practices (choosing the black ball), regardless of the utopian promises that come as part choosing the unknown.

The answer is not perfect – but it is simple. Reduce the scale of the ambiguity surrounding the change you are trying to facilitate. You can’t eradicate it completely, but you can define an experiment that generates iterative evidence and proves the new work practices are beneficial. Turn the new ways from unknowns into knowns, using small experiments.

This is exactly why the ‘We Tried This And…’ methodology champions the creation and delivery of excellent experiments. Once experimentation becomes a key cultural element in any organisation, people become more comfortable with ambiguity, because they experience the benefits of being brave. The virtuous circle this generates is powerful.

If this content triggers something, please reach out to Gez or I. We’d love WTTA to be part of the puzzle you are trying to solve.

Oh, and one last thing. The next time you suggest something new and exciting to the sucking of teeth or worse, tumbleweed, don’t worry. Don’t get frustrated. We are human. We tend to choose the red ball not the black ball. We prefer certainty to ambiguity. It’s just the way we are wired.

Rest easy in the knowledge that you now understand a little of the human behind the reaction 😊.