Social media has made the complexities of the world visible and much harder to ignore both for individuals and for organizations. And the complexities are many and everywhere as the world becomes more globally connected and transparent. For a majority of people, these complexities drive a craving for certainty because they are too big to fathom or process. This drive for certainty, in turn, creates stalemate and paralysis in group decision making which is disastrous to constructive progress. The evidence of complexity (the Wall Street crash around derivatives and mortgages, the economic melt downs in European countries, the Arab Spring, budget stalemate in the U.S.), and of the reaction to this uncertainty (the polarization of the U.S. political discussion, Al-Qaeda, the Oslo shootings) are everywhere.
So how do we move forward and how do we make decisions in this environment?
- We have to suspend the notion that we know anything definitively, like an anthropologist does when observing another culture.
- Separate out respect for individuals from opinions about their behavior or decisions. Personally for me, I find many behaviors and decisions interesting, fascinating, or funny. Some of the people I respect the most, I think do odd things but we ALL do or believe things that others see as odd.
- We have to understand that when we feel right, we may be wrong. See this TED video of Kathryn Schultz on Being Wrong - she makes a great analogy about how being wrong is like being Wylie Coyote after he runs off a cliff but before he looks down. We still feel right even when we are wrong and are not on solid footing, right up to the moment we are aware that we are actually wrong. It's an extremely dangerous place to be.
- Proactively seek out other perspectives and build counter-arguments for your position. Test your ideas with the assumption that you are wrong.
- Identify decisions you think are wrong and find cases for which those same decisions would be right.
- We need to be certain less which is a hard lesson to learn because most of us, for most of our lives have been trained and rewarded for certainty. Instead, as this HBR article Why Being Certain Means Being Wrong by Ted Cadsby recommends, take the stance that your perspectives are hypothesis and are provisionally true.
- Know that everything you believe to be true is based on your unique experiences and perspective. It is quite possible for something to be true for you and wrong for someone else.
- Spend time learning something entirely new that is not job related. It will make you more comfortable with the feeling of uncertainty with a risk-free endeavor and that will help make you comfortable with uncertainty in more important domains.
- Because each of us individually cannot have all the experiences necessary to find the answer to complex problems, we must work in groups. Understanding older concepts of GroupThink and new concepts like collective intelligence will help create effective decision-making structures.
- Learn how to use images, art and drawing to facilitate discussions around complexity. This is one of my favorite graphic drawings about education reform. Art allows for abmiguity and complexity in a way that text and language cannot alone.
- We need to move forward boldly and make decisions despite incomplete information... but also be prepared to change our path. It's easy to just shut down when faced with an environment in which you can never be certain or absorb all the information available. But if you are a leader, you need to accept the uncertainty and move forward anyway.
- We need to accept that moving forward may often mean a compromise or an imperfect path, both of which will not make us 100% happy particularly if we are asked to support it.
These are some resources and strategies that I've found work for me. But, in the spirit of the point, I'm not sure I'm right. What's your take on how to make decisions in today's economic and political environment?
Image by DanCentury