An Illusion of Control

The Rice and Chessboard story.

The industrial era was obsessed with measurement and control. A mechanistic mindset, with people and planet as predictable, cause-and-effect management. Complicated. We have educated our children for over five generations based on this principle, and schooled them in getting things right, with little room for wonder and awe.

It has become part of the DNA of how we work. If we want to know if our two year old child is performing to specification, The EYFS Statutory Framework will tell us, and I noticed this morning that because so many parents have opted to home school during the pandemic, there is a move now to have them register, so the Department for Education has “direct line of sight” to how they are performing. The news this morning was full of myriad other examples. Keeping prisoners on early release more effectively tagged. Epidemiologists being interviewed as to why Covid case numbers are falling when they had been forecast to rise. One of the answers was telling – “well, it’s getting extremely complicated.”

No, it’s not. It’s complex, and complex is an altogether different animal. A Swiss watch is complicated. Education, crime, and viruses are complex. They do not behave as predicted and are influenced by factors we’ve never experienced before, or thought of. And yet, we want to treat them like they’re complicated, because that is how we’ve been educated trained and motivated. Listening to the sweat form on people’s brows because they feel accountable for complex is distressing.

Back in 2006, two researchers, Ap Djiksterhuis and Loran Nordgren proposed a “theory of unconscious thought.” The theory was that the conscious mind is limited as to how much it can hold. It follows strict rules and precedent but when things get complex, it runs home to Mama, to the unconscious mind, and defends itself by inventing logical reasons for why what is happening in not what “should” be happening.

When that happens, they suggest, we need to disengage and go for a long walk and sleep on the issue, and let the unconscious mind do its work. The unconscious accesses far more – feelings, emotions, senses, and joins far away “dots” to give us an answer that makes intuitive sense, even if we don’t have the data. Probably the best known exponent of this school of thought is Daniel Kahneman with his best selling “Thinking Fast and Slow”, where he talks about “fast thinking” system 1, and “slow thinking” system 2. Conventional approaches to business management favours system 1. Good leadership favours system 2. Under pressure, short term management wins.

I want to suggest there is an alternative to that walk in the park and sleeping on the problem – good though they are. The alternative is slow, thoughtful, unhurried conversations with those who bring alternative perspectives to bear. Those from outside the area under consideration, and who have no “skin in the game” and will call out what they see. These are not people with solutions, they are those who take the time to look beyond and behind the convenient “obvious.” These conversations are courageous, even sometimes dangerous, but nowhere near as dangerous as fooling ourselves that we manage complex as some sort of enhanced complicated.

It is time to accept that those who desperately want us to believe they are in control, are not. It’s not their fault – there are many, many factors interweaving to give us the complex conditions of today, but they do need to come clean, and tell us what they don’t know, and involve and engage us with finding approaches that work, from citizen assemblies to non partisan political engagement, to genuine, not sanitised, conversations with those that work for them

It is the end of an era, and we are in a phase change, a liminal space. The sooner we accept that, and deal with what is, rather than bluster on about what we want it to be, the less further damage we will do and the sooner we can start to deal with it.

It is time for meaningful, courageous conversations with those who think and do, not just gesticulate.

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