The basic point is this. Results come from our quality of thinking. Poor quality means poor results. Less obvious is that our quality stays low if we’re pained when others try to help us improve it. If change to you means pain, you let friends and family know what you don’t want to talk about, and you fend off others who have different ideas, pruning them out of your life so that you never have to interact with them. You may believe you know what they think, but may only have seized on stereotypes that allow you to discard them as a source of ideas. They could be potential allies, but if you sense that they see things differently than you do, you may use that as an excuse not to talk to them.
The effect of such protection around your thinking is that you lose the ability to notice its limitations.
A certain inability to change society is realistic. Social change seldom yields itself to the initiative of a single person. The one must become many. Most of us acknowledge that alone we’re helpless to change much outside our own lives. Vast systems seldom turn on the deeds of a single person like ourselves, and even Presidents discover that they can change things less than they expected.
The nature of systems helps explain. Their sub-parts are patterns of activity that, once going, have their own momentum. And for the system to operate optimally, the patterns need to operate optimally. Any given one operating poorly hinders the whole system, and to install one, whether in human systems or in technology, we have to grasp its overall causality. An engine, for instance, works when every part performs its action predictably. Its overall success requires that regularity, and when it seems to malfunction, a small part changed may not improve it overall—and we go back again to the interaction between parts and whole. If too many parts go wrong, maybe we need an engine replacement (in social terms ”a revolution“), but at the very least, we have to comprehend it at a system. This was the perspective attempted in framing the US Constitution. People wanted to think big, foresee long-term effects, and arrange constructively how the social/political/economic system existing then would work under the various provisions.
To truly comprehend a system you need to probe past the big phases because its success can hinge on the perfect functioning of a single part. Once you get it, details fall into place and make sense. Think of details-in-order and then J. Robert Oppenheimer and the atom bomb, Werner Von Braun and the US space program, Thomas Edison and the light bulb. Countless inventions, enterprises, and human programs depend on someone grasping the whole, and then foreseeing how an army of people can incorporate an array of details into it.
Lacking such penetrating thought, however, people vote for directions and principles whose details they don’t understand. They declare categorically “what the country needs” without noticing the details implied. Numerous initiatives passed optimistically at the Federal level turned out badly. Reason? In a complex system, it’s much easier to be wrong than to be right. Wrong answers vastly outnumber right ones. When you lose something, you look in a dozen wrong places and there’s only a single right place. Edison’s famous 10,000 tries to find a filament for the electric light bulb, exaggerated or not, illustrate the point: We’re wrong over and over and over until we’re finally right. Even with the best minds in the country working on it, the Constitution required a score-plus of amendments, and we still depend on innumerable laws passed year by year to operate the country, constantly re-thinking even basic systemic issues in US society.
If being wrong is so easy, how can we know when we’re right?
The most reliable evidence is that our version of cause and effect works. Such conclusions are empirical and pragmatic instead of ideological. Remember Kurt Lewin‘s suggestion, “If you think you understand something, try to change it.” The operation of causality validates our interpretation. We really can’t tell if we’re on or off track without evidence of some kind, and the operation of cause and effect is one of the strongest. It can show up dramatically when you do one thing and a cascade of positive effects follow. You turn the key in the car’s ignition, power springs to life, and suddenly movement is possible. The key was the right thing. A small action generates a large response. The opposite is exerting a lot of effort with little return–“beating a dead horse,” continuing “a losing battle” because you don‘t want to admit you were wrong in the first place. That it didn’t turn out as you expected is a clue to a flaw in your thought process.
A dodge many use is, “Well, my thinking is correct. It’s just these pesky barriers that keep me from solving the problem.” That view resigns you to helplessness. You admit that your plan doesn’t include removing the barriers, but they‘re at the heart of social change. They’re part of the system of society, often stabilizing it from change that’s too rapid or poorly considered. How you overcome them is fundamental to your success. Who are those people about whom you say, “If only they weren’t the way they are”? They as well as you are intrinsic to the system. Your solution for the system has to include how you draw from what they know, or how you help them change when they’re wrong, or, in the last resort, how you work around them. Often the attempt to mine their information and understand their attitudes can lead to discovering common ground, or at the very least make clearer to you how to work around them.
The importance of removing the most common barrier to better thought was uniquely presented in an article titled “The Power of Words” by Harriet Rubin, in Fast Company. Rubin profiled the former finance minister of Chile, Fernando Flores, who’d become a consultant to major corporations. She followed him into a meeting of corporate managers whose division had been losing a hundred million dollars annually. They’d reduced the losses to ten million but could go no further, and turned to Flores as their “last hope.“
Listening in, he confronted one manager after another over a single issue, mediocre thinking. They were manifesting “an attitude,” guarding turf, proposing something they didn’t even believe in, dismissing an idea for superficial reasons. He explained to them that the primary cause of failure in human systems is simply mediocre thinking, smart people allowing each other to think dumb.
The group instead must correct the flaws in individual thinking, which requires getting past the tendency to agree just to be agreeable. “Chummy” teams get worse results because they all adopt the same thinking and the skeptical voice sounds argumentative, “not being on board,” “being a wet blanket.” People don’t want to contradict someone else’s poor thinking because it might upset the other, the other might attack them back, their group norm is to avoid that kind of thing, or they don’t want to start an argument. And the higher someone’s status is perceived to be, the harder it is for others to disagree. A comment attributed to Louis B. Meyer represents perhaps the summit of this scale. He said “I don’t want any ‘yes men’ around me. I want people to say what they think even if it costs them their job.”
If someone does happen to contradict you, this is a precious moment. You need to halt your rush to what you were about to do, and listen carefully. Write down what they say (since your self-protective instincts are likely to extinguish it before you even think it through), promise to get back to the person, keep the promise, listen in more detail, and follow through with them. If you don’t take this attitude toward novel ideas, you won’t even know the opportunities you’ll narrowly miss because you’ve deliberately excluded them from your thoughts. As I look back on my life, I shake my head at how close I was over and over to having the idea I really needed. In retrospect I can see it almost hanging in the air around my head, ready for my ear to absorb, but my ear was closed. The words came, I screened them out, and my thinking failed to assimilate their meaning right when it would have been most useful. My mother used to say “So soon old, so late smart!“
For the greatest productivity, the best setting is not just welcoming conflict, however. Unregulated, it can fracture a group. The best setting occurs instead when people feel bonded enough to each other that they can challenge another’s thought without threatening the bond.
The effects of this principle, played one way or another, are visible throughout society. Anywhere people “let the other have his way” and fail to challenge ineffective thinking, we can be certain that results suffer. Many unfortunately would rather have poor results than risk conflict.
And our society often defers to top people in any field. Here’s a challenge to your logic, however. Is the great person likely to have better results alone or with a team supporting him/her and contributing their ideas? Which of the two are likely to come up with better solutions to problems? Extensive experience with teams concludes that everybody thinks better than anybody. All working together (including the stand-out individual) achieve more than the stand-out individual working alone. The deepest insight, the most practical arrangements, the most comprehensive understanding–these tend to emerge from the mix of ideas as people think together in the same direction. Even Albert Einstein said once that he moved to Princeton so that he could walk to work in the morning with Kurt Godel.
- Understanding the difference between high and low quality thinking, and how a team can help improve it may affect how you influence society. Whatever corner of it you work on, you first have to comprehend it and then bring the same high quality thought into every phase of your actions. The brave concepts of the space program could work no better than the engineers and mechanics could implement them. The brave social concepts that lift society can work no better than citizens can understand and apply them. The best thinking of all must pervade the system, top to bottom. Apply some self-checks:
Do you learn comprehensively about your system of interest?
Do you learn about how causality operates within it?
Do you develop your thinking together with others?
The necessity of quality thinking at all levels implies a special task for those promoting change which, if not addressed, accounts for failure after failure. To cause change successfully, you need to deliver the principle of good thinking throughout the spectrum of people whom you hope will cooperate with your plan. With people you hire, this is considered training, but in a more fluid group whose collaboration is less defined, it amounts to an entire field of communication of which training is one part. It’s tempting for people leading large organizations to trust their own judgment and to assume that others manifest their thinking. Yet the task of others are different than their own. Others must rely on their own thinking to handle their own part. They have to move progress past where the leader’s thinking stops. Protocols and standards and checklists may help, but there has never been a checklist that mediocre thinking could not sabotage. Others facing their own task must draw on their existing thinking even to decide when to apply the leader’s idea. They have to realize “Now’s the time!”
Be alert to clues. If you get upset when others question or criticize the quality of your thinking, this is a bad sign. Your first response instead should be excitement that you may have a chance to learn something. If you focus immediately on flaws in their thinking or motives or viewpoint, this is a bad sign. They need to learn something also, but you don’t have control over that. You do have control over your own learning, so that’s where to focus. If you prevent them even from delivering an idea to you because you didn’t invite them, or they aren’t of your status, race, clique, ideology, identity, or turf, this is a bad sign. Pigeonholes strangle the emergent idea. You need to be so committed to finding the best thinking that you deliberately welcome the contrary idea; you grant each other the freedom to hash things out, and still remain bonded in the service of the common vision you subscribe to.
In my next article, I’ll discuss how a common idea can unify social change.