COPING WITH AMBIGUITY AND COMPLEXITY Organizations try to cope with a complicated and uncertain world by making it more simple. One approach to simpli”cation is to develop better systems and technology to collect and process data. Another is to break complex issues into smaller chunks and assign slices to specialized individuals or units. Still another approach is to hire or develop professionals with sophisticated expertise in handling thorny problems. These and other methods are helpful but not always suf”cient. Despite the best efforts, as we have seen, surprising—and sometimes appalling—events still happen. We need better ways to anticipate problems and wrestle with them once they arrive.
Making Sense of What’s Going On Some events are so clear and unambiguous that it is easy for people to agree on what is going on. Determining whether a train is on schedule, a plane landed safely, or a clock is keeping accurate time is fairly straightforward. But most of the important issues confronting leaders are not so clear cut. Will a reorganization work? Was a meeting successful? Why did a consensual decision back”re? In trying to make sense of complicated and ambiguous situations, humans are often in over their heads, their brains too taxed to decode all the complexity around them. At best managers can hope to achieve “bounded rationality,” which Foss and Webber (2016) describe in terms of three dimensions:
1. Processing capacity: Limits of time, memory, attention, and computing speed mean that the brain can only process a fraction of the information that might be relevant in a given situation.
2. Cognitive economizing: Cognitive limits force human decision makers to use cognitive short-cuts—rules of thumb, mental models, or frames—in order to cut complexity and messiness down to manageable size.
3. Cognitive biases: Humans tend to interpret incoming information to con”rm their existing beliefs, expectations, and values. They often welcome con”rming information while ignoring or rejecting discon”rming signals (Foss and Webber, 2016).
Benson (2016) frames cognitive biases in terms of four broad tendencies that create a self-reinforcing cycle (see Exhibit 2.3). To cope with information overload, we “lter out
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notwMM1iÑb Mr processing
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most data and see only what seems important and consistent with our current mind-set. That gives us an incomplete picture, but we “ll in the gaps and make everything “t with our current beliefs. Then, in order to act quickly instead of getting lost in thought, we favor the easy and obvious over the complex or dif”cult. We then code our experience into memory by discarding speci”cs and retaining generalities or by using a few speci”cs to represent a larger whole. This reinforces our current mental models, which then shape how we process experience in the future.
To a greater or lesser degree, we all use these cognitive short-cuts. In the early days of his presidency, Donald Trump’s tweet storms and off-the-cuff communications provided prominent examples. In March, 2017, he tweeted that his predecessor, Barack Obama, was a “bad (or sick) guy” for tapping Trump’s phones prior to the election. Trump apparently based this claim on an article from the right-wing website Breitbart. Since the charge aligned with Trump’s world view, he “gured it must be true and continued to insist he was right even after investigators concluded it never happened.
Exhibit 2.3. Cognitive Biases.
Cognitive Challenge Solution Risk
Too much data to process
Filter out everything except what we see as important and consistent with our current beliefs
Miss things that are important or could help us learn
Tough to make sense of a confusing, ambiguous world
Fill in gaps, make things !t with our existing stories and mental models
Create and perpetuate false beliefs and narratives
Need to act quickly Jump to conclusions—favor the simple and obvious over the messy and complex
Quick decisions and actions lead to mistakes and get us in trouble
Memory overload Discard speci!cs to form generalities or use a few speci!cs to represent the whole
Error and bias in memory reinforce current mind-sets and biases in information- processing
Source: Adapted from Benson, 2016.
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Decisions, whether snap judgments or careful calculations, work only if we have adequately sized up the situation. As one highly placed female executive reported to us, “I thought I’d covered all the bases, but then I suddenly realized that the rest of my team were playing football.”
Managers regularly face an unending barrage of puzzles or “messes.” To act without creating more trouble, they must “rst grasp an accurate picture of what is happening. Then they must move to a deeper level, asking, “What is really going on here?”When this step is omitted, managers too often form super”cial analyses and pounce on the solutions nearest at hand or most in vogue. Market share declining? Try strategic planning. Customer complaints? Put in a quality program. Pro”ts down? Time to reengineer or downsize.
A better alternative is to think, to probe more deeply into what is really going on, and to develop an accurate diagnosis. The process is more intuitive than analytic: “[It] is in fact a cognitive process, faster than we recognize and far different from the step-by-step thinking we rely on so willingly. We think conscious thought is somehow better, when in fact, intuition is soaring !ight compared to the plodding of logic” (DeBecker, 1997, p. 28).
The ability to size up a situation quickly is at the heart of leadership. Admiral Carlisle Trost, former Chief of Naval Operations, once remarked, “The “rst responsibility of a leader is to “gure out what is going on . . . That is never easy to do because situations are rarely black or white, they are a pale shade of gray . . . they are seldom neatly packaged.”
It all adds up to a simple truth that is easy to overlook. The world we perceive is, for the most part, the image we construct in our minds. Ellen Langer, the author of Mindfulness (1989), captures this viewpoint succinctly: “What we have learned to look for in situations determines mostly what we see” (Langer, 2009, p. 33). The ideas or theories we hold determine whether a given situation is foggy or clear, mildly interesting or momentous, a paralyzing disaster, or a genuine learning experience. Personal theories are essential because of a basic fact about human perception: in any situation, there is simply too much happening for us to attend to everything. To help us understand what is going on and what to do next, well-grounded, deeply ingrained personal theories offer two advantages: they tell us what is important and what is safe to ignore, and they group scattered bits of information into manageable patterns. Mental models shape reality.
Research in neuroscience has called into question the old adage, “Seeing is believing.” It has been challenged by its converse: “Believing is seeing.” The brain constructs its own images of reality and then projects them onto the external world (Eagleman, 2011). “Mental models are deeply held internal images of how the world works, images that limit us to familiar ways of thinking and acting. Very often, we are not consciously aware of our mental models or the effects they have on our behavior” (Senge, 1990, p. 8). Reality is therefore what
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each of us believes it to be. Shermer (2012) tells us that “beliefs come “rst, explanations for beliefs follow.” Once we form beliefs, we search for ways to explain and defend them. Today’s experience becomes tomorrow’s forti”ed theology.
In November, 2014, two police of”cers in Cleveland received a radio report of a “black male sitting on a swing pulling a gun out of his pants and pointing it at people” in a city park (Holloway, 2015). Arriving at the site, one of”cer spotted the suspect and saw him reach for his gun. The of”cer immediately shot and killed the suspect. The of”cer might have responded differently if the radio report had included two additional details. The caller who made the initial report had said that the suspect might be a juvenile, and the gun was probably fake. The gun was a toy replica of a Colt semiautomatic pistol. The victim, Tamir Rice, was 12 years old, but, at 195 pounds, might have looked like an adult on a quick glance.
Perception and judgment involve matching situational cues with previously learned mental models. In this case, the perceptual data were hard to read, and expectations were prejudiced by a key missing clue—the radio operator had never mentioned the possibility of a child with a toy. The of”cer was expecting a dangerous gunman, and that is what he saw.
Impact of Mental Models Changing old patterns and mind-sets is dif”cult. It is also risky; it can lead to analysis paralysis, confusion, and erosion of con”dence. This dilemma exists even if we see no !aws in our current thinking because our theories are often self-sealing. They block us from recognizing our errors. Extensive research documents the many ways in which individuals spin reality to protect existing beliefs (see, for example, Garland, 1990; Kühberger, 1995; Staw and Hoang, 1995). In one corporate disaster after another, executives insist that they were not responsible but were the unfortunate victim of circumstances.
Extensive research on the “framing effect” (Kahneman and Tversky, 1979) shows how powerful subtle cues can be. Relatively modest changes in how a problem or decision is framed can have a dramatic impact on how people respond (Shu and Adams, 1995; Gegerenzer, Hoffrage, and Kleinbölting, 1991). One study found that doctors responded more favorably to a treatment with “a one-month survival rate of 90 percent” than one with “a 10 percent mortality rate in the “rst month,” even though the two are statistically identical (Kahneman, 2011).
Many of us sometimes recognize that our mental models or maps in!uence how we interpret the world. It is less widely understood that what we expect often determines what we get. Rosenthal and Jacobson (1968) studied schoolteachers who were told that certain students in their classes were “spurters”—students who were “about to bloom.” The so- called spurters, who had been randomly selected, achieved above-average gains on
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achievement tests. They really did spurt. Somehow, the teachers’ expectations were communicated to and assimilated by the students. Medical science is still probing the placebo effect—the power of sugar pills to make people better (Hróbjartsson and Gøtzsche, 2010). Results are attributed to an unexplained change in the patient’s belief system. When patients believe they will get better, they do. Similar effects have been replicated in countless reorganizations, new product launches, and new approaches to performance appraisal. All these examples show how hard it is to disentangle reality from the models in our minds.2
Japan has four major spiritual traditions, each with unique beliefs and assumptions: Buddhism, Confucianism, Shintoism, and Taoism. Though they differ greatly in history, traditions, and basic tenets, many Japanese feel no need to choose only one. They use all four, taking advantage of the strengths of each for suitable purposes or occasions.3 The four frames can play a similar role for managers in modern organizations. Rather than portraying the “eld of organizational theory as fragmented, we present it as pluralistic. Seen this way, the “eld offers a rich spectrum of mental models or lenses for viewing organizations. Each theoretical tradition is helpful. Each has blind spots. Each tells its own story about organizations. The ability to shift nimbly from one to another helps rede”ne situations so they become understandable and manageable. The ability to reframe is one of the most powerful capacities of great artists. It can be equally powerful for managers and leaders.
CONCLUSION Because organizations are complex, surprising, deceptive, and ambiguous, they are formi- dably dif”cult to comprehend and manage. Our preconceived theories, models, and images determine what we see, what we do, and how we judge what we accomplish. Narrow, oversimpli”ed mental models become fallacies that cloud rather than illuminate managerial action. The world of most managers and administrators is a world of messes: complexity, ambiguity, value dilemmas, political pressures, and multiple constituencies. For managers whose images blind them to important parts of this messy reality, it is a world of frustration and failure. For those with better theories and the intuitive capacity to use them with skill and grace, it is a world of excitement and possibility. A mess can be de”ned as both a troublesome situation and a group of people who eat together. The core challenge of leadership is to move an organization from the former to something more like the latter.
In succeeding chapters, we look at four perspectives, or frames, that have helped managers and leaders “nd clarity and meaning amid the confusion of organizational life. The frames are grounded in both the cool rationality of management science and the
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