This is the last in a series of excerpts from the report A Matter of Perspective: A systems approach to communication and complexity. A copy of the entire report is available here
People generally accept information which confirms their beliefs and dismiss ideas that don’t
A timeless testament to the puzzle of complexity is the tale of the blind men and the elephant. In this enduring Indian parable, several sightless wanderers come upon an elephant for the first time; and in trying to determine what it is, each touches a different part of the animal. To one fellow who grabs the trunk, it is like a squirming snake. To another who holds the tail, it is the same as a rope. For a third who falls against its side, it is akin to a wall; and so on with every contact. But not only do their various perceptions lead them to quarrel, they fail to accurately identify the beast.
Over centuries the allegory has transcended multiple theologies, including Hinduism, Buddhism and Sufism, and has even made its way into modern psychology. In his best-selling book Thinking, Fast and Slow, Nobel laureate Daniel Kahneman says that individuals and organizations similarly jump to conclusions on the basis of limited evidence. His acronym for this condition is WYSIATI – what you see is all there is – and it represents the fact that we base our judgments on our experiences, and on the stories we make up to explain them. Unlike like the men in the fable, cautions Kahneman, we are not merely blind. “We’re blind to our blindness. We have very little idea of how little we know.”
Nowadays, elephants reside in places like politics and the economy, and the blind include elected officials and the sorts of pundits who populate cable television news. It would be naïve to suggest that everyone is equally right and equally wrong. Life is rarely so finely balanced. But it would be fair to say that we all share common causes for our lack of (in)sight.
Of all the technologies we encounter, few may be more hardwired than the brain, which was initially programmed when our ancestors still dwelled in caves. Consequently, many of the ways we process information are inherently ingrained. When presented with new input, we instinctively decide what to admit and what to dismiss. When someone challenges our most cherished convictions, we double down on our beliefs. This “backfire effect” is the cognitive equivalent of Newton’s third law of motion, to wit “for every action, there is an equal and opposite reaction.”
This where systems thinking comes into play. It is a more comprehensive means of seeing things. With regard to the communication model, it involves being able to discern the interactions of all four agents. [Figure 2] That is the sweet spot where we can correctly identify the elephant and act accordingly. But getting to that point requires changes in both attitude and approach.
For starters, it is important to remember that complex systems encompass smaller systems, each with their own elements, interactions and emergent properties. For instance, organizations are composed of departments; audiences are becoming more diverse; external events like the global economic meltdown involve so many different agents as to seem almost incomprehensible; and the Internet is an amalgam of practically every medium that has preceded it.
Rather than set of static, interlocking circles, the communication model is more like four wheels of fortune spinning in separate directions and at different speeds; so that the point of mutual convergence can change from moment to moment. The outcome may not always be an elephant but a different creature all together, as elegant as a cat or as motley as a platypus.
Imperative too, is the realization that complexity is nonlinear. As much as we prefer to present ideas in logical sequence – as is the style of this report – complex systems subsist in the form of feedback loops. Every decision we make, or action we take, produces new information that may either substantiate or undermine our original assumptions. This makes it difficult to definitively measure outcomes since every effect can loop back and possibly alter strategies. [Figure 3]
Worse yet, it can lead to what is known as “wicked problems:”situations about which our knowledge is incomplete, contradictory or constantly changing. They are the ultimate elephants that have as many different interpretations as interpreters. What is more, they are so tightly interconnected with other issues that, like a game of whack-a-mole, no sooner do we resolve one than another emerges.
As a result, numerous conventional models of communication no longer measure up to the circumstances they are meant to address; though many practitioners continue to rely on fixed and familiar routines. Why else, for example, would public relations professionals mechanically resort to vintage tools like talking points and Q&As when they have a diminishing impact on an equally dwindling and overworked corps of journalists?
An alternative is a systems approach which requires that we confront each quandary from a unique perspective. It is a combination of small steps and big leaps, and some are liable to fail along the way. Still, it can serve as a starting point for new and possibly better means to deal with the accruing complexity of communication. At the very least it is way of thinking differently. After all, as Einstein once said, “you can’t solve a problem with the same mind that created it.”