The Impact of Poor Thinking is not a challenge reserved for a few struggling companies to be addressed simply with effective leadership training; it is a challenge faced by individuals and organizations globally.
The Millennium Project is an undertaking that began in 1996 with the goal to create a global collective intelligence system to improve prospects for the future of humanity. There are now forty countries taking part in the project, each represented by think-tank futurists, scholars, business planners, and policy makers who work for international organizations, governments, corporations, non-government organizations, and universities.
Every year, the Millennium Project releases an annual State of the Future report. The report discusses 15 Global Challenges and includes the model shown in Figure 1, which serves as a framework for assessing the global and local prospects for humanity.
Take a look at the fifteen challenges on this image—there is one that just does not seem to fit with the rest.
It is interesting that “Capacity to decide”—that is, decision making—finds a place on the same list of global challenges as clean water, peace and conflict, and energy. Why does decision making rank on this list? The report explains that due to increasing complexity, proliferation of data, and global interdependency, the lack of quality decision making is becoming a systemic problem.
We have far more data, evidence, and computer models to make decisions today, but that also means we have far more information overload and excessive choice proliferation. The number and complexity of choices seem to be growing beyond our abilities to analyze, synthesize, and make decisions. The acceleration of change reduces the time from recognition of the need to make a decision to completion of all the steps to make the right decision…Many of the world’s decision making processes are inefficient, slow, and ill informed. [emphasis added]
—The Millennium Project, State of the Future2
That highlighted sentence emphasizes the core of this global problem. The consequence of an increasingly complex world is that people are being challenged in new ways to make quality decisions, based on quality thinking, that affect their lives and the lives of those with whom they interact.
Complexity defines the interconnected and interdependent relationships that form an organization. It explains how one decision in one division can inadvertently affect another division. It provides insight into why people are so stressed, why it is hard to hold people accountable, why it is difficult to get things done, and why change is difficult.
Compounding the issue of complexity is the endless noise of incomplete and conflicting information. I’m not just talking about the ringing of phones and chiming of electronic conversations, though these too affect our ability to focus. I’m talking about noise as “an unwanted signal or disturbance; irrelevant or meaningless data occurring along with desired information.”
In our personal and work lives, noise has become the word used to describe the constant barrage of information and distractions that obscure our judgment and reduce our ability to think and communicate clearly. We feel its effect when we go to the supermarket and are presented with too many options, when we receive an onslaught of emails and reports, or when we are fed thirty-second messages telling us what to think.
At The Regis Company, we have observed the impacts that complexity and noise have on participants within our business simulations. Over the past ten years, we’ve developed custom simulation training for global organizations in a variety of topics, such as strategic alignment, leadership development, business and financial acumen, project management, talent management, customer service, product development, innovation, and the list goes on.
Regardless of the industry or an individual’s level within the organization, we have found four consistent themes:
- Most employees are poor decision-makers.
- When problems become complex, most people fall back to surface-level thinking.
- Most individuals know how to communicate well but are poor at collaborating when confronted with unique situations.
- When the amount of noise is increased, individual effectiveness further decreases.
Despite the large amount of money organizations spend on training, these themes render even the best leadership training programs ineffective, which bewilders training departments and learning and development consultants alike. Why, then, with so many resources invested in addressing these issues, has there been little improvement in the way we make decisions, solve problems, or collaborate?
The reason, as Albert Einstein is said to have pointed out, is, “We cannot solve our problems with the same thinking we used when we created them.”
Most people still learn to think in a linear fashion and continue with this technique throughout their lives. Yet if organizations hope to remedy situations that were created by linear thinking, then they must encourage workers to approach these issues with a different mindset.
In their book The Knowing-Doing Gap: How Smart Companies Turn Knowledge into Action, Jeffrey Pfeffer and Robert I. Sutton point out that most people know more than they actually do.
For example, people tend to know far more about healthy eating and exercising than they put into practice. The authors relate that many organizations provide forty or more hours of training per year for each employee, yet many workers still lack the ability to do much outside of what they have been told.
Accomplishments are often the result of a heroic effort from twenty percent of the employees, while the other eighty percent merely do enough to get by. Why is there such a huge gap? The answer lies, at least in part, to a lack of effective leadership training.
The gap is created because the what-to-think educational model prepares individuals to function primarily inside known and predictable situations—an important skill, but not enough. This approach produces a large number of linear thinkers throughout the world and provides insight into why more and more employees are ineffective in an increasingly complex world.
Michael Vaughan is the CEO of The Regis Company, a global provider of business simulations and experiential learning programs. Michael is the author of the books The Thinking Effect: Rethinking Thinking to Create Great Leaders and the New Value Worker and The End of Training: How Business Simulations Are Reshaping Business.