While following the 2016 Republican and Democratic Party conventions, I noted, with some concern, how gullible people can be. Despite the complexity of real-world situations, many voters seem too ready to trust politicians who give superficial, vague, and bombastic answers.
This worries me. I wish we would turn down the sloganeering in favor of pursuing well-crafted, lasting solutions to societal problems.
But this acceptance of reductive rhetoric isn’t limited to politics. There’s an interesting analog between the rhetoric of presidential campaigns and what sometimes passes for decision-making in the workplace.
I’ve watched many decision-makers accept simplistic solutions, framed by promises that, based on either evidence or logic, couldn’t possibly turn out the way they sound.
A Case Against Hoping
There’s a lot of recent research showing that although life is more complex than we often realize, we like simple answers that are easy to understand and to describe to others. We tend to oversimplify as a way to try to clarify a situation.
When a solution to a problem we’re confronting looks obvious and easy, it might be too good to be true. We may have generalized too much or aggregated too many details — so much so that the problem we’re so relieved to be solving is no longer the one we’re actually facing. But with oversimplification, all too often what appeared to be the answer won’t actually resolve the problem. Instead, other issues will pop out, and the decision will need reworking.
If we hope too hard for a certain result, we sometimes stop examining a decision’s details and implications. It’s as if we’re closing our eyes, putting our fingers in our ears, and singing la-la-la-la to block out tough questions, annoying challenges, and the dissonance of processing data that doesn’t fit our picture.
The Right Way is Often the Hard Way
So, when you and your team are faced with a problem, how can you short-circuit the tendency to make a reductive, comforting, but ultimately wrong decision?
Don’t vet alone. Give your team the explicit assignment to help you examine, analyze, and challenge both evidence and conclusions on complex topics. Sometimes more heads are better, as they bring more perspectives to the table.
Put more intentional effort into the discussion. Think things through to logical conclusions. If your solution works, what will things look like in 18 months (the time by which things will have shifted) and 36 months (when the impact of the decision will have completely normalized in the culture)? And — in detail — what will the impacts of the decision be if it doesn’t pan out?
Spell out all the trade-offs and soft costs. What will the effect of the new decision/action be on other, existing, or planned initiatives or modes of working? Do a rigorous review of all the significant ones as well as the impacts of alternative courses of action.
Be neutral about the sponsor. William Faulkner said that if you want good writing, you “must kill your darlings,” meaning you mustn’t be afraid to discard your favorite ideas and start over. The same is true in organizational life. It’s vital to prune away the weak initiatives — no matter how fond you are of them. That’s the only way you can focus fully on the strong. Google is aces at this.
Cut out the sloganeering. Eliminate the phraseology that gets consistent airing. Bizspeak often implies that everyone knows what everyone means. Don’t accept jargon. Ask how it applies in this specific circumstance. You’ll often find that different execs mean very different things.
Know, or research, the historical record. How have similar situations worked out in the past, whether in other departments or organizations? Once you’ve completed the scenario testing or piloting project, document and maintain the results so you’ll know what happened and have better data to review in subsequent situations.
Drop the certainties. When colleagues disagree, don’t just dismiss them. Get excruciatingly clear on what they mean and believe. Help the group tolerate seeing and discussing the situation’s complexities and nuances. Demonstrate tolerance for the time and effort it takes to understand what people want, not just their positioning.
Onward and upward,