Sunday, August 25, 2013

The Limitations of Linear Thinking in Organisations

Key points:

1.     Linear thinking takes no effort
2.     Humans like finding causation when there is none
3.     When we can’t find an explanation for something we make it up
4.     Emotion gets in the way of good thinking
5.     We are not as logical as we like to think we are
6.     There are ways we can improve how we make decisions

Humans have a habit of thinking in a linear fashion. It’s not hard to know why we do this. Like a lot of human mental activity, it’s a short cut that saves us effort and energy: like fast thinking that Daniel Kahneman in ‘Fast Thinking, Slow Thinking’ talks about . We like to think in terms of, ‘this leads to that, then that’. It also makes a complex world easier to understand even though we may be operating off false assumptions a lot of the time.

Humans like to find causation even when phenomena are only associated. This is a common error we make that when things occur close together in a temporal way. We make a giant cognitive leap to make one cause the other when, in fact, there is no relationship between them at all, other that they occurred at roughly the same time. The other mistake is to assume that if we change one thing then it will change another. A more critical error is that changing something will not have unexpected effects. This is one of the lessons of complexity theory and the difficulty of predicting effect. Small events can lead to huge change (the butterfly effect) and seemingly large events can have miniscule effect. Restructuring comes to mind in the latter case and making a poor management hire in the former.  

Explanations are important to us and if there isn’t a convenient one at hand then we find one: hence our predilection for superstition in all its various forms.

The problem with linear thinking is that it is not always as logical as we like to think. Recent neuroscience research has shown that emotion plays a huge role in what we like to believe is logical thinking. It appears that’s we make decisions largely based on how we feel about the situation and then use logic to rationalise it afterwards. This happens in nanoseconds but occurs in that sequence nonetheless. It has long been known that we will be swayed by the opinion of someone we admire or respect (and vice versa) rather than consider the facts. The effect of powerful people in groups on opinion is well known from the research on group-think and the Asch experiments. The Challenger explosion that killed six astronauts a school teacher and the more recent Deep Water  Horizon oil explosion in the Gulf of Mexico are powerful examples of how our ability to make decisions can be deeply flawed. These might be extreme examples but we make the same mistakes that occurred in these cases everyday in organisations with less catastrophic results but results nonetheless: poor ones.

As managers in organisations we like to think that our decisions and views are based on logic but that is often far from the truth. That is why it is recommended that decision-making needs to be a participative activity using some of the techniques found in process and system thinking such as the Search Process, for example (there are many others). We need to make sure that people who feel free to criticise, and some who are good at it, are included in the process. The facts need to be sifted through time and time again and checked against the final decision to make sure that it is indeed based on logic and not a single person’s preference.

In a famous experiment by Weick and Sutcliffe they looked for a highly hazardous environment to examine decision-making and organisational behaviour. They chose the deck of an aircraft carrier with planes zooming in and out on a moving platform, tons of highly inflammable fuel and, of course, explosive devices of all sorts. One of the findings was that in that workplace expertise outranked rank. It is a great reminder about the fallibility of thinking you are THE decision-maker, and about the problem of power when one is in a leadership position. Certainly, someone might have to make a final decision when the weight is balanced. However, some managers like to think that they have a divine right to rule, to decide. We know the psychological effect that power has on people. Lord Acton was right on the corrupting effect of power, not in a moral sense, but in the way we assume superiority. It is a flaw in the way we think about organisational management that we EXPECT a single person to take responsibility for decision-making.

So, when we think we are thinking, we should, surely, think again.

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