Proud ignorance

I spend much of my professional life trying to get people to acknowledge and accept complexity – people who have spent their whole career being fed the lie that safety is simple. As if anything that involves people could ever be straightforward. The problem with treating a problem as simple is that you tend to ask the wrong questions, find the wrong answers and end up in a perpetual loop of non-improvement.

As I look more broadly, this issue seems to be becoming more and more prevalent. I don’t know if this is just my perception as I pay more attention, or whether it is actually a trend, but it does seem that the whole world is becoming increasingly polarised. Social media has massively contributed to the idea that everybody’s opinion matters by giving an easy public voice to anyone with an internet connection. This has the potential to add to the richness of discussion but is undermined by this simplicity fallacy. Combined with the short, text-only engagement dominating social media this leads to overly simplistic, black-and-white, yes-or-no arguments that leaves us in entrenched positions shouting in our echo chambers with the occasional twitter volley across an internet no man’s land. LinkedIn, while generally more considered than other social media, is not immune to this.

The traditional media, itself in the throes of significant disruption, fuels this divide by providing platforms for extreme views that make for more tempting headlines (no change there, you might say). Without appropriate moderation, the centre-right sees the self-righteous, platform denying far-left as the only left, pushing them further right in response. The centre-left sees the bigoted, hateful and exclusive far-right as the only right, pushing them further left. Here in New Zealand, the recent election pitted a slightly left Labour party against a slightly right National party, but reading some of the hysterical internet commentary you could be forgiven for thinking that it was Marx against Mussolini.

In a different context, the simplicity fallacy is also invading the corporate world. Executives and Boards have no time to spend considering the complexities of the business. Information fed to the top of corporates is packaged and summarised several times over until it is little more than a sad or smiley face. How can a single person be on the Board of five or six (or more) entities and add genuine value? Time restrictions simply do not allow for consideration of the complexity that is necessary. This is why, despite all the knowledge to the contrary throughout industry and academia, Boards still insist on a general accident rate to headline their safety performance.

It is generally not in the leadership lexicon, but how refreshing would it be to hear those in leadership positions say, “I don’t know enough about this to make a decision. Let’s learn more deeply about it, so we can make the right choice.” Quick decision making is often praised but can be foolhardy. In certain circumstances, quick is good, in others not. True leadership can recognise each and act accordingly, deferring to the right expertise to help them make the decision.

The same applies for debates in broader society. While everyone’s opinion is valuable, the truth is that some are more valuable than others. If I am ill, I will value a doctor’s opinion over a stockbroker. When considering problems in their full complexity, it becomes more obvious where the value lies and we can ask better questions, understand more fully and make more informed decisions. This is not to say that only experts are allowed a view – this would make for just as arid a discussion as people with no understanding – but simply that we should at least base our views on something that is thoughtful and considered.

Someone asked me recently about the Israel-Palestine situation in the light of the decision to relocate the US Embassy to Jerusalem. I said that I didn’t really have enough knowledge of the history, current local issues and likely political fallout to make any rational judgement. It’s my opinion (value it however you like) that this is a response that would be good to hear more frequently.

Admitting ignorance will add more to the argument than randomly taking sides based on pre-conceptions, prejudices or someone else’s view that we saw on YouTube. It reduces the echo chamber effect, makes others think about the validity of their own position and perhaps prompts us to go away and learn more about the topic. Dealing with complexity is, by definition, complex. Fortunately, in contrast, challenging simplicity is simple. Wherever you see obvious answers to what look like difficult problems, or complex matters simplified to the point of absurdity – challenge their understanding.

Sometimes complex problems do have simple answers, but they’re usually elegant solutions emerging from clear and deep thinking, not short-cuts from simplifying the problem.

2017 seemed like a challenging year in many ways. Here’s to a positive and improving 2018 that provides us with more people, particularly those in leadership positions, proudly stating their ignorance on specific matters – not ignorance as anti-learning but as a commitment to finding out and a genuine contribution to improving the discussion.

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