It’s a situation that we all find ourselves in at some point or other. Sometimes, perhaps, a little too often. We see the glimmer of an issue or problem emerging. We’ve seen other situations that are similar, but they’ve not been a problem. So we dismiss this one, or we ignore it entirely. And that’s when it blows up in our face.
In retrospect, of course, a whole lot of stuff then happens. We beat ourselves up, for starters. We chide ourselves for ignoring the warnings. We feel remorse. We tell ourselves that we should have paid more attention to what was going on. We should have seen the signs, recognized the situation for what it was, and done something differently. And then, next time, in a slightly different situation, it all happens again.
So what’s going on? And why? Are we just horrible people? Are we secretly incompetent? Do we need to look for different work? And what does this have to do with genetic predisposition?
For starters, rest assured that you’re fine. You know what you’re doing. You’ve got this. And your brain is working exactly as it’s designed. Which is where, unfortunately, things go just a teensy bit sideways.
So let’s talk about our brains and how they work, shall we? Because something that all of us need to understand is that we are hardwired to be cognitively lazy. And I mean that in the nicest way possible.
Think, for just a moment, of all the decisions that you make in the course of a day. Whether to get out of bed. Toast or a bagel? Marmalade or raspberry jam? What suit should I wear? What shirt? What underwear? Am I driving to work or taking the bus? The usual route, or should I take a shortcut? Can I skip this meeting? How will I describe that issue in the status report?
That’s a lot of decisions, isn’t it? And that’s just the first 10 minutes of the day. It doesn’t get any better from there. The good news is that many of the choices are made in a borderline unconscious manner, often informed by habit as much as anything else. This makes it much easier for us, in that actually having to exercise conscious thought would be pretty exhausting.
Given that unconscious decision making works really well for the simple decisions, our brains also try to get away with the same thing for the more complex ones. And that’s where we get into more trouble. Essentially, what we’re doing is pattern matching. When a situation feels like something we’ve seen in the past, our brains twig to that. That unconscious gut resonance we call intuition is an alert that our brain buzzing us that it’s seen a pattern that it recognizes from some other time.
Once we have matched our current situation to some previous circumstance, what our brain basically tries to do is help us out be suggesting we do the same thing that we did last time. The thinking—such that conscious thought is happening here—is that what worked out last time should work out just fine this time. Because we’re also hard-wired to recognize the similarities and ignore the differences (this would be the essential definition of confirmation bias) we tend to give that plan a thumbs up, and off we go. And that’s right about where the wheels usually fall off.
We don’t rely on a short-circuited thinking process all the time, mind you. Sometimes we do take the time to make thoughtful, well reasoned decisions. And occasionally we deliberate to excess. We scrutinize, contemplate, agonize and categorize as we figure out what the right decision should actually be. What’s going on here is that we’ve hit a decision where uncertainty is high, the stakes of a wrong decision is high, and we’re feeling unfamiliar and out of our depth. And so we really want to know we’re making the best choice, even while we struggle with how to actually make that decision.
One of my favourite examples of this was when my wife and I chose to relocate to Edmonton from Toronto, more than 20 years ago. I had a contract offer for at least a year, my wife wanted to move out west (well, she wanted mountains, but she’d settle for Edmonton) and it seemed a solid base to make a shift. At the same time, we had built a life in Toronto, surrounded by family and friends, and we’d be uprooting ourselves from all of that and moving without a safety net.
We tried every decision making approach we could think of. We weighed the pros and cons. We made lists. We developed criteria. We set ourselves deadlines. And still, at 2am the night before we had to make a decision, we were wrestling with the choice. And finally, we flipped a coin. Heads, we move to Edmonton; tails, we stay in Toronto.
It was heads. “Two out of three?” Heads. “Three out of five?” Heads. “Five out of eight?” Heads, and heads again. And so, we made the biggest choice of our lives on five flips of the coin, because we couldn’t figure out a better way to weigh the consequences.
These two different modes of decision making exist in all of us. Daniel Kahneman, one of the godfathers (along with Amos Tversky) of behavioural decision making, gave these two modes of decisions the original and memorable names of ‘System One’ and ‘System Two.’ System One is our rapid-fire, gut-level, intuition-tapping rapid choice machine. And System Two wants to really take its time and think things through. (For an awesome read of how these work in detail, and to understand behavioural decision making in general, I can’t recommend enough reading Kahneman’s book [Thinking Fast & Slow](https://www.amazon.ca/exec/obidos/ASIN/0385676530/interthinkc02-20); he masterfully distills the work of a very full life into one readable tome).
Whenever possible, our brains want to use System One. And we do, on a regular basis. Pretty much every time we make a snap decision, consciously or not, System One is in the background, chugging along. System Two basically only gets triggered when it counts. Or, more importantly, when our brains think it counts. This is the essence of our context problem. We see the things that make a situation similar, ignore the differences between this time and last time, and rush to judgement and action.
As I pointed out in my [recent webinar](https://vimeo.com/264285880) on this subject, culture matters but context is everything. And this is an important distinction. Culture defines the norms of how things work, whether in an organization or a community. The better we know a culture, the more comfortable and confident we are in operating within it. And the greater our perceived facility with navigating the minefields of even a highly politicized organization, the greater the likelihood that we are relying on System One to get things done. We’re making snap judgements based on what we know, what we feel, what we recognize and what’s worked for us in the past.
The problem with this is that we often don’t recognize the subtle signals and small clues that start to indicate that the culture is changing. We miss what are often initially faint traces of change, and assume that we can still operate the way we always have. Or we presume that we’ve got a handle on a complex issue or challenge, simply because it feels like similar events that we’ve successfully managed in the past.
The answer to this situation isn’t to pay attention to all the things all the time, and make sure we are deliberating fully and completely over every little item. To do that would be crippling and debilitating. We would find ourselves descending into hyper-vigilance, exhaustively belabouring every situation and choice for fear that something is going to go wrong on our watch. In reality, that’s probably more self destructive an answer in the long term than speeding along through life, fully surrendering the wheel to System One’s gut-level intuition. It’s certainly a recipe for massive levels of stress and self doubt.
But we do need to pay attention to the world around us, and the signs that the world might be shifting how it operates, at least in the context of a given situation. Basically, we’re looking for the clues that lead to the insight that we need to give a situation more decision and thought, rather than just relying on System One to get us through. We need to be sensitive to circumstances where the stakes are high enough—and the situation is complex enough—that a little more consideration might be valued.
A significant strategy here—although not a perfect one—is simply recognizing that we are prone to bias. Knowing that we tend to dismiss what doesn’t conform to our world view, we can then consciously ask ourselves “What might I may be ignoring here?” That can be enough of a prompt to start noticing the contextual factors that do make this situation different from previous ones.
Taking the time to consult with others can also help. Specifically, it can be useful to check in with those who have different experiences, perspectives and worldviews than ours. We want to understand what they see that is different from our view, but that might be meaningful in helping us to understand the choices we are facing. Again, the caution in doing so is to be open to the perspective they have to offer. We need to resist the inclination to dismiss out-of-hand what we don’t agree with, and give real credence to alternative perspectives and what they might mean.
Finally, looking for disconfirming evidence is a useful strategy of helping to recognize when greater consideration and thought is required in a given situation. We need to take the time to scan the landscape, what we know of it and what we know of our own experience in order to identify the perspectives, insights and evidence that our cognitive biases might be ignoring. Consciously looking for contrary evidence that undermines our rapid, intuitive interpretation of the situation is a helpful way to test our thinking before we act. In essence, we’re engaging in conscious devil’s advocacy with ourselves, questioning whether there is another perspective at play.
Context—and our understanding of context—is essential to how we navigate difficult and complex situations. It’s how we make sense of the political minefield of our organizations, and how we bring structure and strategy to managing the difficult and uncertain projects we manage. Context is the essential driver of “it depends,” and the primary reason why any given situation “depends.” The challenge is that, even where we can intellectually appreciate this being true, System One is hard-wired to find similarities and ignore contextual differences.
Successfully navigating context and making responsible decisions requires recognizing how System One works, watching the choices that it makes and being willing and open to challenge its gut level choices. We rely on System One to get us through the day, dressed, fed and functioning, and generally it does a pretty awesome job of exactly that. For the larger and more consequential decisions, though, a little more scrutiny is often in order.