Mediocre Thinking

Demystifying Social Change: Part 2

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.

  • Read Part 1.
  • John Jensen is a licensed clinical psychologist and author of Finding Your Inner Lenin: Taking Responsibility for Global Change (Xlibris, 2006). He welcomes comments sent to him directly at jjensen@gci.net and will email an ebook version of his book to anyone without charge upon request. Read other articles by John.

    11 comments on this article so far ...

    Comments RSS feed

    1. Don Hawkins said on January 23rd, 2010 at 12:31pm #

      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.

      John it appears profit has stopped any real inventions so far the I-pod and flat screen TV’s is the best we can do.

    2. bozh said on January 23rd, 2010 at 1:06pm #

      Let’s study for now only one system; that of US! Is it really complex? Or is it apodicticly [of necessary truth] just plain ununderstandable; as per intent? In other words, a set of ‘laws’; i., what shld be ‘simplicities’ delibarately presented in a complex way rather than appodictly rendered ‘simple’ and 100% understandable.

      Here we have another snake oil sale by slave owners and other plutos: that some wishes, hopes, basic rights cannot be said so that everybody understands them.
      Of course, any ‘law’ [means that in the entire recorded history 'laws' were put together by "them" and not us] in US, if it is not written in the language that 99% of mothers speak, is too complex even to ‘glitteratti’ let alone to house people and other ‘lowlife’.

      In making people evaluate as true that they are unschooled, dumb, less worthy we have another great sale. Ah yes, tell them the bigest lie u can come up with and over 10 millennia and repeated trns time did become the truth.

      And tha’s why we still have lords, warlords,kings, aghas, ceos, one party systems, constitution that cannot ever be understood; it can be only interpreted. And guess by whom?
      And plutos ever give up their beloved perfection? tnx

    3. Don Hawkins said on January 23rd, 2010 at 1:19pm #

      Yes but the lords, warlords,kings, aghas, ceos, talking heads the myth the lies in twenty ten is closing in on them at light speed and they will need help a nice cup of coffee and some good conversation.

    4. observing said on January 23rd, 2010 at 2:57pm #

      To incite social change, we must understand and hold to the most basic, wired-in, human social response systems’ operations. At the most basic level. we are programmed to defer to legitimate authority, and to prefer to interact with others who cooperate within the social unit. “Goal, costs, pay” would work easily if that’s where the process stopped.

      Testing has amply shown 3-to-5 month-old infants choose others shown to cooperate without ever having been formally “taught” to do so. From this we can easily draw it is a basic human survival mechanism. What happens as we age, why does this facility get buried in the manipulative self-interest so common in corporate and cultural interactions?

      I am starting to think that initially we are programmed to cooperate, but soon learn that the circle of people we can trust to do so unconditionally is very limited. And cooperation has a cost to the individual, especially if the altruism or bargain is not reciprocated or honoured, so we learn by hard knocks to be selective in who we will cooperate with. We also may discover we can appear to cooperate and gain by not reciprocating or find others will take advantage of us if we don’t/can’t determine who the cheaters are. Think ‘Survivor’ for children.

      By the time we are adults, the school, cultural and media systems have attempted to socialize us to accept the platitudes and attitudes of our leaders (educational, religious, political, military and corporate) as valid and not requiring much critical analysis from us puny mortals. We are trained to be inquiring and creative within the limits so “reasonably” set out for us. Any who do not accept the role of compliant wage-earner , corporate apparatchik or intellectual (if outraged) commentator are soon isolated and marginalized. Think “discipline problem’.

      It is not that ‘mediocre thinking’ is the problem, but that truly innovative and creative thinking is unacceptable within the standing social power constructs. Thinking ‘outside the box’ is merely a euphemism for getting people to think outside the little box normally provided for the peons, but still within the strict confines of social, political and corporate norms.

      Those of us who see beyond and through the ‘thought fences’ so artfully erected around and within our cultures are shouted down, ridiculed, or worse, depending on how illegitimately authoritarian the culture. The lessons learned on all sides from the school-yard episodes played out between bullies, the bookish kid and the sycophant bystanders are reinforced on a regular basis. The black-eyes are now virtual, the jibes more subtle and PC, but the subtext comes through loud and clear. Don’t rock the elite-power boat.

      And the ghost of Louis B. is alive and well. I have lost several jobs in various sectors because the bosses saw my clear, innovative thinking as challenged their power. Often not the thoughts themselves, but because I did not bring them quietly on bended knee for their vetting, to be presented to the organization as their intellectual innovations, not mine.

      Asking the ‘thought slaves’ to cast off their chains means they first must recognize those chains exist. The ones I have tried to make aware look at my lowly station in life, and through the social filters they value, pronounce me a ‘voice in the wilderness’. A wilderness they do not wish to follow me into. Not understanding the power elite will throw them into that same wilderness as soon as it suits their purposes. No matter what the ‘thought slaves’ think.

    5. dan e said on January 23rd, 2010 at 6:38pm #

      I like Observing’s comment better than I do Jensen’s rap, which seems to me likely to produce desired results in the Corporate/Capitalist State context but not likely to be useful in bringing about the kind of “social change” required. Jensen’s vocabulary makes me suspicious. What does “social change” mean? Reforms to Zionized Militarist Imperialism?

      I’ve encountered quite a few convinced Zionists over the last three decades. One kind are the indignant ones who start berating you the minute they realize you are less than totally enthusiastic about “israel”. The other kind are the ones who want to “engage in dialog”, to hang you up in an endless “intellectual” debate. Reminds me of a favorite tactic of Bosses faced with a “Labor Dispute”. They like to invite strike leaders into the corporate offices, get the key people into a conference room, serve tea & cookies, show you some newfangled gadgets, show you pictures of their wives & kiddies, which keeps you out of touch with what’s going on out on the picket line. So the strike leaders don’t know when the busses full of scabs show up, whether it’s Pinkertons or the Nat Guard protecting the strikebreakers.
      So let’s have less hypothetical blah blah, get to the point. Thank you.

    6. Deadbeat said on February 4th, 2010 at 2:47pm #

      So let’s have less hypothetical blah blah, get to the point. Thank you.

      I agree. I really don’t f’n understand what Jensen is trying to say which makes me suspicious. It’s seem more like a self-flagulating excercise rather than communication (or as they say — plain speak).

    7. John Jensen said on February 4th, 2010 at 7:47pm #

      Hey People.

    8. John Jensen said on February 4th, 2010 at 7:54pm #

      Hey people, could we agree on some very basic points? 1) No one who has commented so far has offered even a clue about a series of practical steps thatwill result in positive social change. Reason is clear: it’s very complicated, and it’s clear also that the means being used now aren’t working. Anyone disagree with that? 2) To do any better, we need to understand something differently, we need to penetrate a wall of vagueness. 3) It’s clear that communicating ideas in a manner that more people can agree on good ones is of the essence of positive change. 4) My bottom line could perhaps be summed up in trying to explain how not to turn off all the others who could help the entire process. It does little good just to complain about how bad everything is–it only paints us into a corner where we only talk with people who have similar complaints, and nothing is done. 5) Anyone who knows that their existing thinking is inadequate sensibly tries to maintain an open mind toward anyone else who even conceivably might have a clue toward greater adequacy. 6) A sure way to turn off even our possible allies is to react to surface qualities and not actually understand the point they try to make. As Itried to explain in my earlier post, there’s a price to pay in making change, and the first price is to change our own thinking. –John Jensen

    9. Deadbeat said on February 5th, 2010 at 3:23am #

      Mr Jensen writes …

      1) No one who has commented so far has offered even a clue about a series of practical steps that will result in positive social change. Reason is clear: it’s very complicated, and it’s clear also that the means being used now aren’t working. Anyone disagree with that?

      I disagree with your comment. My criticism and my agreement with DanE has to do with the obtuseness and obliqueness of the prose and the lack of getting to the point in a radical way. No one is arguing about the complexity of positive social change but what’s missing is a radical explanation of why it is so complex.

      2) To do any better, we need to understand something differently, we need to penetrate a wall of vagueness.

      Well vagueness is the problem here it your indirectness.

      3) It’s clear that communicating ideas in a manner that more people can agree on good ones is of the essence of positive change.

      I think if you communicated in a more direct, concise and radical manner then perhaps there could be some agreement.

      4) My bottom line could perhaps be summed up in trying to explain how not to turn off all the others who could help the entire process. It does little good just to complain about how bad everything is–it only paints us into a corner where we only talk with people who have similar complaints, and nothing is done.

      I have to disagree with you on this perspective. If you are chatting with people who thinks it’s great then they have no incentive to change the status quo and are probably benefiting from it. That defeats the purpose especially as the status quo is deteriorating for so many. I don’t call myself “Deadbeat” just to be humorous.

      5) Anyone who knows that their existing thinking is inadequate sensibly tries to maintain an open mind toward anyone else who even conceivably might have a clue toward greater adequacy.

      You are engaging in a huge fallacy to assume because of the lack of result that everyone else has no clue. What it reveals to me is your lack of radical analysis.

      6) A sure way to turn off even our possible allies is to react to surface qualities and not actually understand the point they try to make. As Itried to explain in my earlier post, there’s a price to pay in making change, and the first price is to change our own thinking.

      Who are these “possible allies”? The Right? The Phony Left? Without radical analysis and critique anyone could be “possible allies” thus leading to disastrous results.

    10. bozh said on February 5th, 2010 at 7:53am #

      Describing what goes on in US is not complaining. Saying that there is no healthcare in US and that it is private people who make profits from peoples’ illnesses instead of all of us, must be said.
      And these issues are not complicated. Right to be formed and not deformed thru bad food is simply a human right that needs no more defining-explaining.
      Right to be informed-educated must be said.

      Actually, structure of US governance and its society is crystal clear. But, it goes wihout saying that pols, clergy, psychiatrists, ‘educators’, social ‘scientists’ et al wld render these simplicities complex.
      And then go on and omit to say what this complexity consists of; thus adding and insult to injury!

      One cld affirm that nothing is complex in the entire universe; we sipmly don’t know ALL ab anything. And there is no shame in not knowing all we need to know.
      However, the basic structure of US governance can be seen with naked eye and needs changing.
      It can be changed thru education-enlightenment and second political party. Once americans establish a viable second party, the system that allowed slavery, extirpation of indigenes, nuking japan, serfdom, numerous wars, division of people into very wealthy and very poor is forever broken.

      It wld be nice to obtain allies. However, i am not going to hold my breath expecting people who say God Bless America or shout USAUSAUSA to ever become my allies or respect some basic panhuman rights. tnx

    11. dan e said on February 5th, 2010 at 1:52pm #

      Thanks DB for fleshing it out.

      First thing I’d have to axe Mr J is to define what he means by “positive social change”.
      At one time a lot of us considered “Integration” to be a high priority “positive social change”; however it turns out that “integration” really meant Incarceration.

      It’s clear that given the dimensions of the crisis we need a Change that is qualitatively and quantitatively adequate, equal to the problems we face.
      There is no pt in expending a lot of effort just to put a bandaid on the bloody mess.

      I agree with Bozh — I’m not going to be holding my breath waiting for confused liberal “intellectuals” to figure out meteorological reality.

      As I see it, the vast majority of US residents remain confined to a dreamworld not because their conditions of life are so wonderful, but because information about what their fellows are experiencing is so tightly and totally controlled by the Powers That Be. Key among said Powers is of course the Zionist-controlled MSM/mainstream media; Academia & the “educational system” (sic), the religion complex, labor, civic and other organizations also play roles.

      So the challenge is to find or create ways to break through the blizzard of lies, through the information blackout, enable people to communicate with each other. DV of course is one really great initiative in this direction, but unfortunately fails to reach many of those most in need of, and most prepared to understand the information DV and similar sites/blogs provide.
      Take the Ft Hood incident for instance. The vast majority of those who work in military and veterans hospitals don’t fit the profile of inhuman monsters. These are people who spend their working hours taking care of sick and injured fellow humans. Most have no idea what the rest of the military establishment does, or if they do they’ve never been exposed to the suggestion that many DOD activities can’t be morally justified.
      Military bases nowadays are surrounded by “anti-Terrorist” measures; barriers, mazes of orange cones, multiple gates and checkpoints, which may or may not keep truckbombers out, but which certainly do keep unorthodox ideas out. Any ruckus kicked up by Code Pink or any other peacenik bunch will transpire and be extinguished without anybody on the inside paying the least attention.
      You’re right, the above is not the answer to anything. My hope is to pose the question from a fresh angle.
      Since the “hi-tech” means of communication are so “under control”, I’d like to suggest a fresh look at various low-tech options. Like a mass campaign to scrawl brief pithy slogans on shithouse walls?