Entraining your mind to outcomes is the hardest practice to beat as a facilitator working in complexity. Whether it is learning, strategy or design, if you are in the complexity domain your attachment to an outcome is highly dangerous. It will shape your process, and cause you to harvest only what you are looking for, missing out on the juiciest, most powerful places of potential in a system.
Over the past week I managed to watch the entire 10 part series on the trials of Steven Avery on Netflix called Making a Murderer. Regardless of whether you think Avery is guilty or innocent of the murder, the series is a brilliant case study in what happens when we enter processes with our minds made up about the outcomes.
At one point in the final episode, Avery’s lawyer Dean Strang talks about the fact that people hardly ever set out to frame innocent people. Instead what they do is try to find the evidence to prove the guilt of those that they believe are guilty. When you believe someone is guilty you will look for evidence that proves that. And when you are an investigator that is a completely focused on a single outcome, you are going into the work with the problem already solved, and no amount of contrary evidence will change your mind.
Strang is gracious is labelling this a feature of the human condition: we are built this way. And it is that human failing is what makes justice sometimes an unattainable ideal.
Making A Murderer is an incredible portrait of how the entrained mind works. It illuminates a problem we all have to confront when problem solving, harvesting data and dealing with complexity: how do we let go of a pre-conceived outcome so that we can truly learn what’s going on and make decisions based on good information? And how do we do that while still holding on to a higher ideal. In other words, everyone in the case was motivated by justice (and justice what SHOULD have led everyone in the case), but the evidence that was collected and presented seemed to have motivated by a pre-conceived outcome to the trial.
In the world of practical complexity work there are a number of principles I have been using in harvesting and working with data, many of them informed by Dave Snowden’s work. These include:
Gather information with open questions that do not embed assumptions in them (the interrogation of Brendan Dassey is a perfect example of the very opposite of this – fishing for answers). In truly complex situations don’t ask direct questions, rather ask indirect questions about a person’s activities so they can’t game the system (or confirm your bias).
- Work at a very fine level of granularity – the more data you have the more ambiguous the conclusions will become, which is a good thing if you’re trying to learn the truth rather than trying to pre-determine an outcome.
- Use a diverse group of people to make sense of the data as they see it by looking for patterns in the data and asking questions that can be answered by further sensemaking. (The bones were in the firepit? How did they get there? Where were the people that could have moved them? What was happening during the time the body was burning?)
- When you discover a pattern check and see if it makes sense by looking for data that supports the pattern AND look for data that refutes the pattern. The human brain loves being validated so you have to make a special effort to invite a theory to be disproven.
- When you make a decision based on a pattern, lead by doing what you can to move towards the higher ideal, even if the path you choose is not the outcome or the pre-conceived notion you started out with. Leading and acting in this way, providing you have worked well with the data, results in BETTER ways to help build just socieities, make good things, improve organizational life or look after children and families.
These are good practices in and of themselves, and in my experience they also stand out as red flags if I see people engaging in teh OPPOSITE of these activities. If we are faced with closed questions, very small numbers of meaning makers, a refusal to hear dissent or a desire simply to see the big picture rather than the minutae, it causes me to explore in more detail the motivations and assumptions that people have. And like Dean Strang says, most people are not consciously out to commit an injustice, they are just unconsciously out to prove what they think they already know. That can have devastating consequences.