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Thursday, 11 September 2014

How do we close the "mind gap" to address complex problems in public policy?

by Ted Casby

The complex problems that we face today, including (and especially) those that confront public policy makers, are not well suited to our default ways of thinking about the world. Income disparity between rich and poor, urban planning for higher population densities, terrorism, global warming – these are the kinds of challenges that demand greater cognitive sophistication.

Three things to know about today's complex problems:

  1. They are different than the kind of straightforward problems we routinely solve in our daily lives. And different than the challenges that dominated the lives of hundreds of generations of our ancestors.

  1. The cues we need to decipher complex problems are buried below the surface of immediately available information. And the feedback we get from interacting with them is delayed and ambiguous.

  1. Complexity arises from multiple causal factors interacting in intricate ways. So the key to addressing complex problems is uncovering the dynamic of these interactions.

Three myths about complex problems:

Myth #1:  "Blinking" gives us an edge in tackling complexity, as per Malcolm Gladwell's interpretation of how effective our intuitions are.

The Reality: Blinking, aka intuition, works only in the case where we have developed reliable expertise. It serves a crucial purpose in our everyday lives and is an important base from which to tackle complex problems. But our intuitions are often misleading when it comes to tackling situations that feel familiar, but are fundamentally different from other problems.

Myth #2:  To know something is to access a truth about the world.

The Reality:  Knowing is a feeling, described best by neurologist Robert Burton. It is the feeling of calm confidence that we have figured something out. But it is a psychological state that is entirely based on the subconscious trigger that our interpretation of the world is both internally consistent and consistent with everything else we have already stored in our memory banks. 

Myth #3:  Two heads are better than one.

The Reality:  Cognitive diversity is absolutely crucial to tackling complexity, as demonstrated by decision scientist Scott E. Page. However, groups of people are prone to unique vulnerabilities, such as groupthink. The benefits of cognitive diversity only accrue when discussion is facilitated by team leaders who know how to foster the kind of constructive dissent that deepens conversation, expands understanding and extends creativity.

Ted Cadsby, MFA, CFA, ICD.D ( is a corporate director, consultant, author and speaker on complexity and decision making. He was formerly an executive vice president of CIBC leading 18,000 employees. His newest book is Closing the Mind Gap: Making Smarter Decisions in a Hypercomplex World (BPS, 2014).

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