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Like all animals, our hard wiring evolved in ways that promote survival (and reproduction), but our operating procedures are not always conducive to tackling the kinds of complex problems that leaders confront today. The best leaders know this, and they resist the powerful human instincts that lead us astray.
The problem: we are designed to rush to conclusions.
Our operating system is designed to seek speedy closure on problems – to lock down conclusions quickly so we can respond and survive another day. There is urgency to replace the tension of being uncertain with the calm feeling that we've got things figured out.
While feeling right and being right are not the same thing, they are highly correlated for straightforward problems where cause and effect are tightly linked, allowing us to adeptly pick out the cues we need to separate signal from noise. But not so for complex problems, where multiple causes influence one another in a giant feedback loop of never-ending interactions that hide below the surface. Signal and noise are not nearly as easy to separate, but the same hardwiring that motivates us to conclude quickly means we barrel ahead with complex problems, glossing over gaps in our knowledge.
Missing information: the key to unlocking complex problems.
We never have all the information, but what differentiates the straightforward from the complex is the significance of the missing information. We are experts at deciphering the signals of straightforward problems (such as crossing a busy street), so the missing information is unimportant (such as who is driving each car). But for complex problems, the missing information is crucial because we are not as proficient at identifying the signals, many of which are hidden from view. Much of the critical information required to formulate corporate strategy, for example, is not instantly available.
Here's an example of how not having all the information caused a program to be unsuccessful. The Roll Back Malaria program was launched to reduce malaria in developing countries. Bed nets were distributed to pregnant women and children to protect them from disease-carrying mosquitoes. But in fishing villages, the nets were used by villagers to catch and dry fish: given the choice between malaria and warding off starvation, the nets were re-purposed, resulting in no reduction in malaria. In fact, fish stock was depleted because the nets trapped and killed juvenile fish, which then didn't mature and reproduce. The missing information was the alternative use of the nets as well as how the villagers would prioritize food over Western-style medicine, of which they were skeptical.
Effective leaders do it differently: they ask themselves three critical questions.
Smart leaders know the cognitive vulnerabilities that teams are susceptible to, first and foremost the proclivity to rush to conclusions without digging for important but missing information. What questions do they ask themselves?
1. Am I asking enough good questions?
"Questioning is the piety of thinking," according to the philosopher Martin Heidegger, and for good reason. Questions reveal not only what information is missing that needs to be investigated, but also uncovers what Cass Sunstein refers to as "hidden profiles" – the information that a single person or small number of team members have, which they choose not to disclose. There are many reasons for nondisclosure – chief among them is our tendency to go with the flow of a consensus view. Questioning is a good antidote to groupthink.
The paradox is that although questions deepen understanding, in our inborn rush to conclude, we are disinclined to ask questions, and when we do, we are not experts at asking the right kinds in the right way. For most of us, probing and open-minded question-asking is not our forte because we pose questions that solicit confirmation of our opinions ("Does everyone agree that this product is a winner?" as opposed to "What aspects of this product could undermine its success?"). Voltaire wrote, "Judge a man by his questions rather than his answers." The best leaders know that the way we frame questions has a significant influence on the responses we get, so they are purposeful and authentic in asking open-ended, information-seeking questions.
But it's not only questions that surface hidden information.
2. Am I fostering constructive disagreement?
It goes by many names, notably "constructive dissent" and "creative abrasion." The best leaders know that the most powerful insights arise from challenging discussion but they also know that constructive dissent is not something most humans are proficient at. We gravitate to one of two poles: defensive stubbornness or unassertive acquiescence. We get emotionally wedded to our early positions and defend them, even in the face of counter-evidence. But when we are confronted by a consensus point of view, we are prone to groupthink agreement because of the human motivation to conform when we feel outnumbered. Smart leaders do battle with these two traps by creating safe environments where team members are encouraged to challenge each other in sensitive but assertive ways – where the stated objective is getting to the right decision, not celebrating individual rhetoric or prioritizing unanimous agreement.
The best leaders also know that synthesizing insight from constructive dissent, and asking high quality questions, both take time.
3. Am I taking enough time?
Meeting agendas are typically imbalanced: the easy stuff gets allotted too much time at the expense of the hard stuff. Complex problems can't be rushed without a significant sacrifice in the quality of decision making. Having said that, there is a delicate balance between having a deep and revealing discussion and getting stuck in analysis paralysis. The best way to navigate this balance for a particular problem is to consider the worst possible outcome of getting a decision wrong. How costly is an error? The more serious the impact of a mistake, the more time and patience should be invested in wrestling with the problem. Smart leaders are always asking themselves if they have allocated enough time to the hard and risky problems.
As Nassim Nicholas Taleb writes in his book Antifragile, "To be sophisticated you need to accept that you are not so." The best leaders know how unsophisticated our automatic problem-solving skills can be when applied to complex problems. They push themselves and their teams to resist the urgency of wanting to feel right at the expense of being right.
Ted Cadsby is a corporate director, consultant, best-selling author, researcher and speaker on complexity and decision making. Formerly he was an executive vice-president at Canadian Imperial Bank of Commerce. His latest book is Closing the Mind Gap: Making Smarter Decisions in a Hypercomplex World.