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The Universal Answer to Everything is “It Depends”

April 2, 2024
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When we ask a question, we are likely seeking a definitive "yes" or "no", a "black" or "white" answer, to lead us to a decision or conclusion. But what if there is no real answer? What if all we can do is explore the span of options between the absolutes and make a perfectly imperfect assessment based off the information we have available to us at this present moment?

If you’ve spent any amount of time in conversation with me, chances are you will have experienced the pause, think, waver, and final “yes and…” or “it depends” that inevitably comes out of my mouth. It can sometimes be related to ambivalence – the feeling that one may have two seemingly contradictory feelings at once and perhaps uncertainty about which direction to take (like do I want the chocolate or Neapolitan ice cream?), but more often than not, it has to do with the fact that I’m about to launch into a half-baked soapbox monologue moment where I examine evidence to support one, two, or more possible outcomes. This is something of a running joke for my colleagues and I, but there is a good reason why I do it, and it turns out, there may be scientific merit to adopting this answer for yourselves.

Navigating the Paradox of Seeking Certainty

It is a paradox of the modern era that while we have an more information at our fingertips now than ever before, we also have less time to think critically and evaluate options than ever before. Maybe because of it, or despite it, we also crave simplicity, clarity, and certainty. Though desiring certainty is quite a normal human instinct, we all have differing abilities to tolerate uncertainty. The anxiety induced while we’re in this liminal space can wreak havoc, forcing us to seek and embrace frameworks, models, and formulas as a means to provide comfort, reassurance, and mitigate risk.

Frameworks and models aren’t all bad though. Sure, they might give an illusion of predictability, but they do serve us well within certain parameters. It’s in the nuance where they falter. (Explore more about this and how Patterns thinking can help in this context in our blog Patterns, Patterns Everywhere.)

Nuance and context are everything however, and there is a very big difference between using something as a starting point and taking it as the only option. In this case, while “It depends” can seem like the quintessential non-answer, it might just be the most honest and intelligent response in our complex world of nuance, uncertainty, and interdependencies.  

The Ontology of 'It Depends'

I’m not a philosopher, but if I were I might join the ranks of those who have long debated the existence of absolute truth. This is what we call “absolutism” and it argues that there exists a reality outside our everyday perception – in other words, that there is a wrong or a right – a black or a while – a clean sharp yes and no. Absolutism is helpful in delineating moral imperatives, and may also be helpful in the world of math (up to a certain level) – but I think its utility is limited in an organizational context.

In contrast, relativism is the idea that one's reality is dependent on the standpoint or perspective.  At its core, our perfect wishy washy non-answer embodies the philosophical stance of relativism, and goes a step deeper than that, extending into system dynamics and complexity theory.  

Going Deep into Systems Thinking and Complexity Theory

Systems thinkers view the world as a collection of interrelated systems where each part is dependent on and influences the behavior of the whole. In a system, a change, no matter how small, can have profound ripple effects. Inherent to this is the understanding that actions create reactions, and in a complex network, these interactions result in consequences that are difficult to predict and can disrupt the entire system.  

Complex systems theory on the other hand emphasizes interaction and the accompanying feedback loops that constantly change the systems. Today’s organizations are what we may call complex adaptive systems because they have both complex structure and adapt based on dynamic networks of interactions. Complexity characterises the behaviour of a system where the interaction of certain components leads to emergence, where individual and collective behaviour mutates and self-organizes corresponding to a change or event.

Both Complexity theory and systems thinking reinforce the value of not having a clear cut response, because they teach us that life is not linear and that there isn't always a direct cause and effect relationship that we can follow. With this, decision making should not just rely on sensing, using best practices or analysis (the breaking down of a system into its component pieces) to solve a problem, but offering up hypotheses, testing and learning from the outcomes (before doing it all over again).  

Target Practice : When Systems thinking and Complexity theory isn’t well heeded

This is why, if we pick on project management for a moment, you will see many agilists suggest that however valuable, the practice has limitations in our constantly evolving organizational world. Of course project managers can’t just say “we’re not sure what will happen, let’s wait and see” – but the pursuit of controlling all the variables to the best of our ability is also futile. We want to believe that because we’ve done our due diligence with risk logs, analyses, and up-front planning by way of Gantt charts, that we will somehow be better able to manage outcomes and inevitable change. While preparation is helpful, it doesn’t leave room for what happens when things do change. We can forecast the likely outcomes, but we can rarely predict with absolute certainty what will happen. (Side note : The more we progress in our current ecosystem in the post-agile transformation age, the more we actually believe the sweet spot is somewhere in between the rigor and governance of project management, and the empirical customer focussed continuous improvement mindset of agile- but more on that later.)

What also comes to mind is a somewhat unrelated reference to the “cargo cult” phenomenon of the mid 2010’s. This was around the time where corporate C suites were touring innovation labs and start-ups in the Silicon Valley, and often the takeaways that they implemented seeking to be more innovative and disruptive in their own offices were simply newly furnished games rooms and fully stocked snack kitchens. While we can laugh at it today, the allure of having a project plan or best practice (something proven to refer to) is a powerful force to be reckoned with.

Shifting Gears : The Dunning-Kruger Effect and the Illusion of Certainty

Charles Dar- win (1871) sagely noted over a century ago, “ignorance  more frequently begets confidence than does knowledge” In his 1871 book, The Descent of Man, Charles Darwin wrote: “Ignorance more frequently begets confidence than does knowledge.” If there was ever any doubt, it seems that Charles Darwin was a brilliant mind indeed.

In 1999, two professors (David Dunning and Justin Kruger) published the now ubiquitous research “Unskilled and unaware of it: how difficulties in recognizing one’s own incompetence lead to inflated self-assessments.” that suggests that individuals with lesser skills in specific tasks tend to overestimate their own abilities in those specific tasks. Known now simply as the Dunning Kruger effect, this cognitive bias gives colour and context to the saying that we sometimes know enough to be dangerous. If we overlay this with the idea that saying “it depends” might be the only right answer there is, you will see how giving a simple answer might actually be due to a lack of knowledge or awareness of anything else.**

But We Can Always Learn: And We Should

Similar to the Dunning Kruger effect in that it deals with competence and awareness of that competence, there is the Four Stages of competence model where individuals go through four states as they progress through their learning journey towards knowledge of a skill. This is also known as the “Conscious Competence” Learning Model. First noted in the 1960’s textbook “Management of Training Programs” by three professors at NYU, it has been repeatedly referenced and cited since.  

The four stages are:

  • Unconscious incompetence: You don't realize that you don't know something, or you may deny the utility of the skill.
  • Conscious incompetence: You realize that you don't know something, see the value of the new skill and want to learn it.
  • Conscious competence: You've learned the skill, but it requires concentration and effort to execute it effectively.
  • Unconscious competence: You've mastered the skill, and it becomes second nature; you can do it without really thinking.

If you’ve ever joined one of Dave’s courses (CSM, CSPO or the advanced series), you’ll perhaps be fooled into thinking that his answers to the questions that come up in the course are absolutes. Dave does this intentionally so as to avoid confusing learners by adding too much context, but the more we are immersed in our learning of Agile ways of working, Scrum practices or Product Ownership, the more we realize that Dave’s answer is a starting point.  

It’s here as we progress through the steps in the learning journey that we are more prone to recognizing that a question has multiple valid responses or that no absolute answer exists.  

This progress on the path to expertise requires self-awareness and the humility to recognize our own limitations when we’re not yet unconsciously competent.  

"It Depends" as a Sign of Intelligent Reasoning in Leaders

Leaders who embody this mindset are often the most innovative and adaptive, as they are unafraid to admit the unknown and pivot their strategies accordingly. Those who can acknowledge they don’t have all the answers are often the leaders we want to get behind and support anyway. They show vulnerability and humanity – they can often reflect on what alternate options exist and their considerations, which gives context and reassurance to the team.

Leaders who value the more ambiguous response also tend to create cultures of openness and adaptability. They foster environments where creativity and problem-solving can flourish because these environments liberate us from the expectations of perfection we place upon ourselves. We don't need to be infallible or know everything, instead, we can lean into uncertainty, harnessing the power of trusting our teams and learning continuously. It's through this growth that we can make the most well-informed, and, paradoxically, certain decisions in our uncertain world.

The Agile Mindset and 'It Depends'

Agile approaches, which emphasize the empirical process with iterative delivery, collaboration, and the flexibility to respond to change are the hallmarks of accepting this truth. Whether or not using agile ways of working, the leaders who understand that everything at best is a carefully considered experiment align with agile mindset, and the uncertainty and dynamism inherent in complex systems.  

Conclusion: The Path to True Expertise

And so, the reason why I believe that "it depends" is the universal answer to everything is because in our world governed by systems thinking and complexity, rigidity and absolutes are rarely applicable. Genuine expertise lies not in the confident, unequivocal answer, but in the nuanced response that accounts for the multitude of underlying variables. It's an answer that doesn't shy away from complexity, but rather, embraces it.

For leaders, getting comfortable with "it depends" is a sign of intellectual maturity and humility. When we genuinely understand something, we can also accept that there is so much more we don't know. In this light, "it depends" becomes a mantra of the ultimate leader, who tempers their overconfidence and reminds themselves and others of the larger landscape that frames our decisions and understanding.

Next time you're met with a situation that begs for an authoritative answer, consider what you can learn from digging into the layers of that question and try giving a more nuanced answer instead. It's often in those spaces that some of the most profound and personalized insights await. As always, if you ever feel like you’d benefit from some neutral 3th party support in your organization (whether adopting a new practice, changing an existing process, or streamlining for value), reach out to us at IncrementOne. We love reaching into the depths of our knowledge and crafting custom solutions for our clients.

--

**(Tangentially and paradoxically, as I was researching this, it came up that there is significant misunderstanding regarding the interpretation of Dunning and Krugers findings themselves! The research that was done was related to skills in specific domains rather than absolute competence – and was limited to the low skill-> high confidence phenomenon rather than the high skill -> low confidence pattern we are also familiar with.

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When we ask a question, we are likely seeking a definitive "yes" or "no", a "black" or "white" answer, to lead us to a decision or conclusion. But what if there is no real answer? What if all we can do is explore the span of options between the absolutes and make a perfectly imperfect assessment based off the information we have available to us at this present moment?

If you’ve spent any amount of time in conversation with me, chances are you will have experienced the pause, think, waver, and final “yes and…” or “it depends” that inevitably comes out of my mouth. It can sometimes be related to ambivalence – the feeling that one may have two seemingly contradictory feelings at once and perhaps uncertainty about which direction to take (like do I want the chocolate or Neapolitan ice cream?), but more often than not, it has to do with the fact that I’m about to launch into a half-baked soapbox monologue moment where I examine evidence to support one, two, or more possible outcomes. This is something of a running joke for my colleagues and I, but there is a good reason why I do it, and it turns out, there may be scientific merit to adopting this answer for yourselves.

Navigating the Paradox of Seeking Certainty

It is a paradox of the modern era that while we have an more information at our fingertips now than ever before, we also have less time to think critically and evaluate options than ever before. Maybe because of it, or despite it, we also crave simplicity, clarity, and certainty. Though desiring certainty is quite a normal human instinct, we all have differing abilities to tolerate uncertainty. The anxiety induced while we’re in this liminal space can wreak havoc, forcing us to seek and embrace frameworks, models, and formulas as a means to provide comfort, reassurance, and mitigate risk.

Frameworks and models aren’t all bad though. Sure, they might give an illusion of predictability, but they do serve us well within certain parameters. It’s in the nuance where they falter. (Explore more about this and how Patterns thinking can help in this context in our blog Patterns, Patterns Everywhere.)

Nuance and context are everything however, and there is a very big difference between using something as a starting point and taking it as the only option. In this case, while “It depends” can seem like the quintessential non-answer, it might just be the most honest and intelligent response in our complex world of nuance, uncertainty, and interdependencies.  

The Ontology of 'It Depends'

I’m not a philosopher, but if I were I might join the ranks of those who have long debated the existence of absolute truth. This is what we call “absolutism” and it argues that there exists a reality outside our everyday perception – in other words, that there is a wrong or a right – a black or a while – a clean sharp yes and no. Absolutism is helpful in delineating moral imperatives, and may also be helpful in the world of math (up to a certain level) – but I think its utility is limited in an organizational context.

In contrast, relativism is the idea that one's reality is dependent on the standpoint or perspective.  At its core, our perfect wishy washy non-answer embodies the philosophical stance of relativism, and goes a step deeper than that, extending into system dynamics and complexity theory.  

Going Deep into Systems Thinking and Complexity Theory

Systems thinkers view the world as a collection of interrelated systems where each part is dependent on and influences the behavior of the whole. In a system, a change, no matter how small, can have profound ripple effects. Inherent to this is the understanding that actions create reactions, and in a complex network, these interactions result in consequences that are difficult to predict and can disrupt the entire system.  

Complex systems theory on the other hand emphasizes interaction and the accompanying feedback loops that constantly change the systems. Today’s organizations are what we may call complex adaptive systems because they have both complex structure and adapt based on dynamic networks of interactions. Complexity characterises the behaviour of a system where the interaction of certain components leads to emergence, where individual and collective behaviour mutates and self-organizes corresponding to a change or event.

Both Complexity theory and systems thinking reinforce the value of not having a clear cut response, because they teach us that life is not linear and that there isn't always a direct cause and effect relationship that we can follow. With this, decision making should not just rely on sensing, using best practices or analysis (the breaking down of a system into its component pieces) to solve a problem, but offering up hypotheses, testing and learning from the outcomes (before doing it all over again).  

Target Practice : When Systems thinking and Complexity theory isn’t well heeded

This is why, if we pick on project management for a moment, you will see many agilists suggest that however valuable, the practice has limitations in our constantly evolving organizational world. Of course project managers can’t just say “we’re not sure what will happen, let’s wait and see” – but the pursuit of controlling all the variables to the best of our ability is also futile. We want to believe that because we’ve done our due diligence with risk logs, analyses, and up-front planning by way of Gantt charts, that we will somehow be better able to manage outcomes and inevitable change. While preparation is helpful, it doesn’t leave room for what happens when things do change. We can forecast the likely outcomes, but we can rarely predict with absolute certainty what will happen. (Side note : The more we progress in our current ecosystem in the post-agile transformation age, the more we actually believe the sweet spot is somewhere in between the rigor and governance of project management, and the empirical customer focussed continuous improvement mindset of agile- but more on that later.)

What also comes to mind is a somewhat unrelated reference to the “cargo cult” phenomenon of the mid 2010’s. This was around the time where corporate C suites were touring innovation labs and start-ups in the Silicon Valley, and often the takeaways that they implemented seeking to be more innovative and disruptive in their own offices were simply newly furnished games rooms and fully stocked snack kitchens. While we can laugh at it today, the allure of having a project plan or best practice (something proven to refer to) is a powerful force to be reckoned with.

Shifting Gears : The Dunning-Kruger Effect and the Illusion of Certainty

Charles Dar- win (1871) sagely noted over a century ago, “ignorance  more frequently begets confidence than does knowledge” In his 1871 book, The Descent of Man, Charles Darwin wrote: “Ignorance more frequently begets confidence than does knowledge.” If there was ever any doubt, it seems that Charles Darwin was a brilliant mind indeed.

In 1999, two professors (David Dunning and Justin Kruger) published the now ubiquitous research “Unskilled and unaware of it: how difficulties in recognizing one’s own incompetence lead to inflated self-assessments.” that suggests that individuals with lesser skills in specific tasks tend to overestimate their own abilities in those specific tasks. Known now simply as the Dunning Kruger effect, this cognitive bias gives colour and context to the saying that we sometimes know enough to be dangerous. If we overlay this with the idea that saying “it depends” might be the only right answer there is, you will see how giving a simple answer might actually be due to a lack of knowledge or awareness of anything else.**

But We Can Always Learn: And We Should

Similar to the Dunning Kruger effect in that it deals with competence and awareness of that competence, there is the Four Stages of competence model where individuals go through four states as they progress through their learning journey towards knowledge of a skill. This is also known as the “Conscious Competence” Learning Model. First noted in the 1960’s textbook “Management of Training Programs” by three professors at NYU, it has been repeatedly referenced and cited since.  

The four stages are:

  • Unconscious incompetence: You don't realize that you don't know something, or you may deny the utility of the skill.
  • Conscious incompetence: You realize that you don't know something, see the value of the new skill and want to learn it.
  • Conscious competence: You've learned the skill, but it requires concentration and effort to execute it effectively.
  • Unconscious competence: You've mastered the skill, and it becomes second nature; you can do it without really thinking.

If you’ve ever joined one of Dave’s courses (CSM, CSPO or the advanced series), you’ll perhaps be fooled into thinking that his answers to the questions that come up in the course are absolutes. Dave does this intentionally so as to avoid confusing learners by adding too much context, but the more we are immersed in our learning of Agile ways of working, Scrum practices or Product Ownership, the more we realize that Dave’s answer is a starting point.  

It’s here as we progress through the steps in the learning journey that we are more prone to recognizing that a question has multiple valid responses or that no absolute answer exists.  

This progress on the path to expertise requires self-awareness and the humility to recognize our own limitations when we’re not yet unconsciously competent.  

"It Depends" as a Sign of Intelligent Reasoning in Leaders

Leaders who embody this mindset are often the most innovative and adaptive, as they are unafraid to admit the unknown and pivot their strategies accordingly. Those who can acknowledge they don’t have all the answers are often the leaders we want to get behind and support anyway. They show vulnerability and humanity – they can often reflect on what alternate options exist and their considerations, which gives context and reassurance to the team.

Leaders who value the more ambiguous response also tend to create cultures of openness and adaptability. They foster environments where creativity and problem-solving can flourish because these environments liberate us from the expectations of perfection we place upon ourselves. We don't need to be infallible or know everything, instead, we can lean into uncertainty, harnessing the power of trusting our teams and learning continuously. It's through this growth that we can make the most well-informed, and, paradoxically, certain decisions in our uncertain world.

The Agile Mindset and 'It Depends'

Agile approaches, which emphasize the empirical process with iterative delivery, collaboration, and the flexibility to respond to change are the hallmarks of accepting this truth. Whether or not using agile ways of working, the leaders who understand that everything at best is a carefully considered experiment align with agile mindset, and the uncertainty and dynamism inherent in complex systems.  

Conclusion: The Path to True Expertise

And so, the reason why I believe that "it depends" is the universal answer to everything is because in our world governed by systems thinking and complexity, rigidity and absolutes are rarely applicable. Genuine expertise lies not in the confident, unequivocal answer, but in the nuanced response that accounts for the multitude of underlying variables. It's an answer that doesn't shy away from complexity, but rather, embraces it.

For leaders, getting comfortable with "it depends" is a sign of intellectual maturity and humility. When we genuinely understand something, we can also accept that there is so much more we don't know. In this light, "it depends" becomes a mantra of the ultimate leader, who tempers their overconfidence and reminds themselves and others of the larger landscape that frames our decisions and understanding.

Next time you're met with a situation that begs for an authoritative answer, consider what you can learn from digging into the layers of that question and try giving a more nuanced answer instead. It's often in those spaces that some of the most profound and personalized insights await. As always, if you ever feel like you’d benefit from some neutral 3th party support in your organization (whether adopting a new practice, changing an existing process, or streamlining for value), reach out to us at IncrementOne. We love reaching into the depths of our knowledge and crafting custom solutions for our clients.

--

**(Tangentially and paradoxically, as I was researching this, it came up that there is significant misunderstanding regarding the interpretation of Dunning and Krugers findings themselves! The research that was done was related to skills in specific domains rather than absolute competence – and was limited to the low skill-> high confidence phenomenon rather than the high skill -> low confidence pattern we are also familiar with.

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