One link think

Cognitive science Complex Systems Government Leadership for decision makers Wicked Problems

In the swirl of events, I’m often left wondering if there’s something deeper going on.  Our leaders seem to be increasingly missing the bigger picture.  A glimpse, here and there, into the underlying cause of dead ends we’ve reached: problems with capitalism, the media, politics, climate, conflict, health care.   Is there a common cause?

2016 might arguably be characterized as the year we all decided we’d had enough of government as usual.  Between Brexit, the Trump ascendancy, and the sheer energy behind the Bernie Sanders campaign, it seems that many are thinking, “enough is enough”.  And that’s the good news.  When disenfranchised groups have zero representation, then terrorism and revolt seem to be the inevitable outcomes.

It’s not just that we disagree with the decisions of many leaders; we don’t even understand the building blocks they’re using.  Hidden inside economics spreadsheets, a campaign’s Big Data initiative, or government think tanks, we are increasingly shielded.  Not by intention, but arguably simply from sheer complexity of the situation.  It’s so hard to reason from cause to effect, to effect, to effect, and beyond.

The result: two camps: single link and multi-link thinkers. Both are flawed.  George Lakoff nails it:

Direct causation is dealing with a problem via direct action. Systemic causation recognizes that many problems arise from the system they are in and must be dealt with via systemic causation. Systemic causation has four versions: A chain of direct causes. Interacting direct causes (or chains of direct causes). Feedback loops. And probabilistic causes.

Lakoff goes on to say that empirical research indicates that conservatives, as a rule, use direct causation thinking:

Immigrants are flooding in from Mexico — build a wall to stop them. For all the immigrants who have entered illegally, just deport them — even if there are 11 million of them working throughout the economy and living throughout the country. The cure for gun violence is to have a gun ready to directly shoot the shooter. To stop jobs from going to Asia where labor costs are lower and cheaper goods flood the market here, the solution is direct: put a huge tariff on those goods so they are more expensive than goods made here. To save money on pharmaceuticals, have the largest consumer — the government — take bids for the lowest prices. If Isis is making money on Iraqi oil, send US troops to Iraq to take control of the oil. Threaten Isis leaders by assassinating their family members (even if this is a war crime). To get information from terrorist suspects, use water-boarding, or even worse torture methods. If a few terrorists might be coming with Muslim refugees, just stop allowing all Muslims into the country. All this makes sense to direct causation thinkers, but not those who see the immense difficulties and dire consequences of such actions due to the complexities of systemic causation.

Direct causation (one-link thinking) is seductive in its simplicity: take this one action, observe this immediate and powerful result.

But the devil is in the dominos, and they don't stop falling. Click To Tweet

So you know where I’m going with this.  Lakoff has crystallized the problem succinctly, but we need to move forward to a constructive solution. That’s Decision Intelligence: a discipline for mapping what Lakoff calls systemic causation. Without it, we’re stuck between two extremes: systemic thinkers overwhelmed with complexity and lost in the paralysis of analysis.  Or direct actions with cascades of unintended consequences.

Says Lakoff, “Systemic causation is more complex and is not represented in the grammar of any language. It just has to be learned.”

So rich, interactive and collaborative visual models that demystify complex systems are the “language” we need to teach ourselves. But unlike any language we’ve learned before, it’s visual, intuitive. About links, not data.   Less verbal, less text.  And critical for our survival as a species.