Applying Atwater’s Confidence Map

It’s often as hard to make sense of “where’d we start” and “where’d we go” as it is to make sense of “where are we now” and “where are we going?” 

I can hear you thinking. “Matt, no it’s not. Or at least it’s not really that hard. Beyond simple cause and effect, there’s a pretty obvious order to events.”

To which I respond, “You’re right. But what about why?”

Enter Peter Atwater’s efficiently simple and exquisitely thought-provoking book, The Confidence Map

Beyond the chronology of events, Atwater wants us to look at our confidence throughout phases of our experience with events. It can help us better understand personal and professional choices before we start. It can also help us better understand personal and professional choices in hindsight. 

The Confidence Map itself looks like this:

On the left of the table you’ll notice “control.” This is about how much impact we can have on a situation. How we can get to our airport gate on time (high control)  but can’t control the plane doing the same (low control). 

On the bottom of the table you’ll notice “certainty.” This is about how certain we are of the details of a situation. If the flight tracking app says “your flight is on time” we feel good (high certainty), but if it says “unable to update” we feel stressed (low certainty). 

Depending how our sense of control and certainty combines, we can determine where we are at any point in time in one of the Confidence Quadrants. 

If we’re at our gate and the app says the plane is about to pull in for boarding, we’re in “The Comfort Zone.” 

If we’re at our gate and the app isn’t updating, we’re in “The Launch Pad.”

If we’re looking at the app telling us the plane is on time but we’re waiting to get off our connecting flight and worried if we’ll make it, we’re (kind of literally!) in “The Passenger Seat.” 

And if we’re looking at an app that won’t refresh, sitting in the seat of our connecting flight, confused about what time zone we’re in and if anything can ever go our way ever again, we’re in “The Stress Center.”

I know, I know – these are cute examples. But this is useful. Insanely useful. 

Say your team is about to start a new initiative at work. Knowing if everyone is on the same page by gauging their sense of confidence in their control and certainty can determine if you’re launching a project from The Stress Center or The Launch Pad. 

See the difference? 

Yes, the initiative might not have exact certainty towards its outcome, but the sense of perceived control can make all the difference in the first steps. 

What about if you’ve been exercising for a few months and despite feeling super in control of your desired outcome at the onset, you’ve noticed the “insane gains” you were expecting have sort of become “marginal maybe improvements?” Your confidence has slipped from the high control, high certainty of The Comfort Zone, and fallen into the high control but low certainty of The Passenger Seat. 

The Confidence Map is a diagnostic tool for sentiment. 

If we start to see it everywhere, we can understand where we came from, and what we’re moving towards – over time.* With “why” in mind. With purpose. 

Atwater’s work is wildly useful across all sorts of our daily domains, both personally AND professionally.

Whatever strategy or messaging habits you have in your personal or professional practices, keep this graphic handy. The book keeps working its way off my shelf and back onto my desk. And this little notecard of a graphic, might be one of my favorites in the little pile I keep right across from my keyboard. 

*Atwater goes into lots of detail about time and the importance of reading/matching/understanding horizon preferences here. I was curiously skeptical about this part, but he delivered on discussing it. Marketing people, you’ll love this as much as markets people (“what is going to/needs to happen when to cause these people to behave that way”). Also, the “Confidence and the Stories We Tell” chapter adds just enough behavioral psychology to applying this tool to narrative structure, that once you see it, you won’t be able to unsee it.