People often overrate themselves, not in rocket science, but in areas of their lives more familiar to them. For example:

  • Some 90% of Americans rate their driving skills as above average.
  • About the same percentage of people think they're more popular or more likely to succeed than the average person.
  • In one study, ¼ of the respondents rated themselves in the top one percent in terms of leadership ability.

Obviously, a lot of those people are seriously wrong. The same level of misguided beliefs shows up when corporate executives rate their skills at merger integration. I’ve watched it for three decades now, and the pattern stays the same.

In his book, Everything is Obvious (Once You Know the Answer), Duncan Watts writes, “The sad fact is that we’re actually much better at planning the flight path of an interplanetary rocket than we are at managing the economy, merging two corporations (my italics), or even predicting how many copies of a book will sell.”

He goes on to point out that rocket science seems hard, while problems having to do with people seem like they ought to be just a matter of common sense. Trouble is, merging people and cultures confronts us with a very different kind of complexity from everyday situations. As Watts explains, “Under these circumstances, common sense turns out to suffer from a number of errors that systematically mislead us.”

Executives should keep this in mind when ...

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