Sunday, April 11, 2010

For every complex problem there is always an answer that is clear, simple, and wrong.

There’s my favorite H. L. Mencken quote again. The truth of those few words keeps coming up over and over again in my life.

David Brooks’ column in the New York Times on Friday, April 9, 2010, talks about two kinds of organizational leaders:
  • Those who believe that there is a clear, simple solution for every complex problem and confidently drive their organizations based on belief in themselves and those solutions.
  • Those that understand that complex problems do not have clear, simple solutions and are much more humble in the way they lead.
Brooks references Jim Collins, author of “Good to Great” and “How the Mighty Have Fallen.” Collins celebrates reliably successful leaders who combine “extreme personal humility with intense professional will.”

Brooks provides a wonderful description of an organizational leader who can be successful in today highly complex environments:

She believes we only progress through a series of regulated errors. Every move is a partial failure, to be corrected by the next one. Even walking involves shifting your weight off-balance and then compensating with the next step.
She knows the world is too complex and irregular to be known, so life is about navigating uncertainty. She understands she is too quick to grasp at pseudo-objective models and confident projections that give the illusion of control. She has to remember George Eliot’s image — that life is like playing chess with chessmen who each have thoughts and feelings and motives of their own. It is complex beyond reckoning.
She spends more time seeing than analyzing. Analytic skills differ modestly from person to person, but perceptual skills vary enormously.
Anybody can analyze, but the valuable people can pick out the impermanent but crucial elements of a moment or effectively grasp a context. This sort of perception takes modesty; strong personalities distort the information field around them. This sort of understanding also takes patience. As the Japanese say, don’t just study a topic. Get used to it. Live in it for a while.
Because of her limitations, she tries to construct thinking teams. In one study, groups and individuals were given a complicated card game called the Wason selection task. Seventy-five percent of the groups solved it, but only 14 percent of individuals did.
She tries not to fall for the seductions that Collins says mark failing organizations: the belief that one magic move will change everything; the faith in perpetual restructuring; the tendency to replace questions with statements at meetings.
How many organizational leaders do you know who match this description? I want to see many more of them and that is what my work with New Possibilities Associates is about.

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