What the Monty Hall problem teaches us about leadership

Change is a constant. All leaders must at one time or another face up to this sometimes startling reality.

by Chris Hirst
Last Updated: 24 May 2023

The Monty Hall problem is the mental equivalent of a tongue twister. Named after a 1960s quiz show host, the contestant is shown three closed boxes. One contains a prize, the other two are empty. The contestant is asked to choose a box, but is not yet permitted to look inside.

The host, who of course knows where the prize is hidden, opens one of the two remaining boxes to reveal it is empty and, here’s the kicker, now asks the contestant if they want to change their mind.

Do you stick. Or do you change?

You have 900 words to decide.

Oarsmen in a boat

It's a cliché to say we live in a time of unprecedented change. I have heard it every year since university. (I probably could have also heard it then, but was too busy doing other things to notice.)

I don’t believe it’s true. Just because something is new to us, does not mean something similar hasn’t happened before. Change is the only constant.

As leaders, or perhaps more pertinently, human beings, we experience change as both an input and an output. Change is imposed upon us by forces beyond our control and, in turn, we ourselves initiative change through our decisions, big and small. In part, our individual experience of the world is determined by the interaction of these two forces.

Life is often described as a journey, yet for many this is not true. A journey is a conscious passage from one place to the next. Those who take control of their journey are as oarsmen in a boat – though the currents, winds and tides may attempt to drag them from their course, through effort and skill they are able to follow the needle of their own compass.

Too many, however, do not experience life as a journey but as a current. Rather than steer, they bob like a cork on the ocean. Those same tides, winds and currents work without interference, leaving them aimlessly adrift.

The majority of forces that influence our lives, our businesses, our careers, are beyond our control. We cannot affect the rise of generative AI, energy costs, or if our competitor cuts their prices. What we must do, indeed all we can do, is consider those factors that are within our control and shape our responses accordingly.

Leadership therefore, can be considered to be the art of the possible. Or perhaps the understanding of where the boundary lies between the possible and impossible; that we can control and that we cannot.

To succeed, leaders must be able to achieve effective results in constantly changing environments, against unpredictable forces, with imperfect information. Leading change requires that leaders both respond effectively to those factors beyond their control and mould those that are within.

The point of inflexion

All of us at some point will be faced with a circumstance where the methods, tools and thinking that had proved successful thus far can no longer be relied upon to succeed in the future. For many, the greatest hurdle, at least initially, is in overcoming the cognitive dissonance of this circumstance. Outwardly all may seem as it did yesterday, as it did last year, yet clouds gather on a horizon that had previously been sun-bleached blue.

This point of inflexion is one of great challenge; status quo or revolution. Revolution because sometimes slightly better, faster or smaller won’t do; because the behaviours, culture, process and thinking that have served to this point are no longer fit for purpose. Revolution because your greatest certainty is simply that the past can no longer serve as your guide.

This leap from status quo to reinvention is never easy. Many leaders are like the proverbial frog in warming water, failing to notice the incremental deterioration of their situation until it is too late. Or, more commonly, they see the signs but lack the clarity, skills or courage to respond effectively. The warming water is, after all, comfortable. Until the very end.

The startling reality

Leadership is primarily the act of influencing the behaviour and performance of others, but reinvention begins with you. First, you must be convinced of the need to change; inertia your seductive foe, its siren call to be resisted. All leaders must at one time or another face up to this sometimes startling reality. Leading change is their greatest and yet most rewarding test.

The demand for those who can effect meaningful change has never been greater. The best, and the teams or organisations they lead, will grasp these opportunities rather than wilt before them. Learning to lead change is to be the oarsman rather than the cork. Its principles are universal, uncomplicated and replicable.

The ability, in an ever-shifting world, to successfully steer your own course is the ultimate route to personal and professional fulfilment, improved results, reduced stress and, dare I suggest, even happiness.

Finally, let’s return to our tormented quiz show contestant. If you haven’t already worked it out, they are exactly twice as likely to win the prize if they change as if they stay*. I can’t promise you those odds, but I can promise that staying where you are and hoping it will all work out is rarely a winning strategy.

* The easiest way to explain why is as follows:
Initially the odds of the contestant choosing the correct box is 1/3. And therefore the odds of the prize being behind one of the other two doors must be 2/3. Monty (who of course knows where the prize is) opens one of the empty boxes. If you stay – your odds remain 1/3 as they were at the start. And the odds of it being in one of the other two boxes remain 2/3. But now you only have one box to choose from as the other has been opened. QED.

Chris Hirst is a CEO and author. His latest book, No Bullsh*t Change: An 8 step guide for leaders, is published on 1 June.