In 1964, the CIA’s Sherman Kent tried to bridge the gap between ‘poets’ and ‘mathematicians’ when discussing the likelihood of certain events. He proposed that a phrase like ‘probable’ should represent an event with a 75% chance of taking place, while a phrase like ‘we doubt’ should be around a 30% chance.
His study inspired a number of polls, including the one below, about the probability people assign to certain phrases. For example, a typical person assigns a value of 90% to the term ‘highly likely’, though answers might range from 70% to 98%.
This is interesting in football because we deal with a number of uncertain outcomes. If, for example, we suggest an academy player would ‘probably not’ become a first team player at our club, it is important to bear in mind that the audience (his parentsthe academy manager, the first team coach) could understand this as representing anything from a 1-in-5 chance to a 2-in-5 chance. Or if ‘we believe’ a potential new signing will hit certain objective benchmarks, the perception could range from 60% to 80%.
This might feel like splitting hairs, but it’s important to establish a common language when discussing uncertainties. Indeed, failure to do so could lead to misunderstandings of expectations and costly mistakes – like overpaying on a new signing because of a misalignment on what a ‘very good chance’ of success actually meant.
There is of course no time more uncertain than the summer months, so having joined-up thinking on what’s probable, possible, and unlikely, can ensure decisions are made with clarity of thought.