Prob­lem Solv­ing In a Post-truth World

Rotman Management Magazine - - FROM THE EDITOR - by Glen Markham

“They all die!” We were on our way out of a screen­ing of Rogue One – A Star Wars Story, and the 8-to-10-year olds in the group were con­sumed by the re­al­iza­tion that ev­ery sin­gle main char­ac­ter had died. This was not what they were ex­pect­ing. To those of us who un­der­stood more about the saga, this was less shock­ing: We saw that the plans had got­ten out to the Death Star in time, re­new­ing the on­go­ing clash be­tween the dark side and The Force: There would be an­other se­quel.

The word rogue can be ap­plied many ways, but a gen­eral def­i­ni­tion is the idea of be­ing out­side of the norm — an out­lier. On Jan­uary 20, 2017, a new kind of rogue as­sumed the pres­i­dency of the United States. Since then, we have wit­nessed rogue be­hav­iour—be­hav­iour that, while con­sis­tent with the man, is in­con­sis­tent with per­cep­tions of how things ‘should be’. The bot­tom line: Both money and mean­ing are up for grabs. And the stakes have never been higher.

Stephen Col­bert coined the term ‘Truthi­ness’ in 2006. To­day, more than a decade later, it has never been more apt. Terms such as ‘al­ter­na­tive facts’ and ‘fake news’ have raised ques­tions about how peo­ple be­lieve and per­ceive the world around them. The ques­tion many are ask­ing is, How can so many peo­ple have such dif­fer­ing views on things that ap­pear to be fac­tual?

Al­ready, we have seen the death of many as­sump­tions that have guided pol­icy, politi­cians, peo­ple and the press for decades. Ar­guably, this all started with the death of con­sen­sus—a shift­ing of the sands of be­lief. One thing is cer­tain: A sit­u­a­tion with no shared un­der­stand­ing is truly wicked.

The next four years are go­ing to be a bonanza for those of us in the prac­tice of tack­ling wicked prob­lems. What else would you call a sit­u­a­tion with lit­tle prece­dent, where am­bi­gu­ity reigns and where new lan­guages are be­ing spo­ken? Eco­nomic in­equal­ity, health­care and earth care were wicked-enough prob­lems al­ready—but now, we get to work on them un­der con­stantly-shift­ing base­lines. Not just the base­lines we for­get about that have ‘nor­mal­ized’ sit­u­a­tions, such as the on­go­ing loss of marine life, but new ones that de­ter­mine what we want for our so­ci­ety—and for our world.

Go­ing for­ward, we are go­ing to have to gather some strange bed­fel­lows. As one re­porter re­cently pointed out, both the me­dia and the in­tel­li­gence ser­vices are now in the black books. These two—usu­ally on op­po­site sides — now find them­selves be­ing sin­gled out and look­ing to sup­port each other. What new mashups will be cre­ated? What new al­liances? What new pos­si­bil­i­ties can be ex­plored? What new op­por­tu­ni­ties ex­ist for cre­at­ing shared un­der­stand­ing?

There is a new lan­guage in town, and since get­ting out of

town is not al­ways pos­si­ble, we need to learn it and use it—rather than deny it. In Con­nect­ing Hearts and Minds, cul­tur­al­ist Greg

Nees shows that peo­ple to­day are liv­ing in sep­a­rate psy­cho­log­i­cal real­i­ties that are built upon sep­a­rate sources of in­for­ma­tion and the hu­man brain’s de­sire to avoid cog­ni­tive dis­so­nance. These real­i­ties are main­tained by search­ing for facts that sup­port our be­liefs while ig­nor­ing those facts that don’t. Be­cause the war­ring sides are each de­fend­ing a ‘vir­tual re­al­ity’, they are prone to see any­one who does not agree with them as the en­emy, and are thus un­able to talk and work well with ‘them’.

To man­age this, Nees ar­gues, we need more face-to-face com­mu­ni­ca­tion based on the prin­ci­ple of ‘safety first, truth sec­ond’. In or­der to avoid trig­ger­ing peo­ple, we need to cre­ate safety first— be­cause when the fight-or-flight re­sponse kicks in, a pro­duc­tive con­ver­sa­tion be­comes im­pos­si­ble. Once a mod­icum of trust is built up, we can then be­gin to ex­plore the facts in a way that al­lows the truth to emerge. Nees points to the im­por­tance of three par­tic­u­lar skills for man­ag­ing the chal­lenges of to­day’s du­el­ing real­i­ties:

1. Self-aware­ness and deep lis­ten­ing. Deep lis­ten­ing is not only lis­ten­ing to words, it’s lis­ten­ing for mean­ing and con­nec­tion. When we be­come more self-aware, we au­to­mat­i­cally be­come bet­ter able to lis­ten to peo­ple whose view­points might oth­er­wise trig­ger us.

2. Switch­ing view­points. Learn­ing to switch view­points is a key skill for cre­at­ing safety for the other per­son. When we can switch view­points flu­idly, we be­come bet­ter lis­ten­ers and com­mu­ni­ca­tors.

3. Begin­ner’s mind. When we cre­ate enough safety — both for our­selves and for the other per­son — we be­come able to sus­pend the pre­tense that ‘we know all the an­swers’. Only then can we al­low the truth to emerge in a way that en­ables us to es­cape du­el­ing real­i­ties.

Like the rebels in Rogue One, we might not all make it out of this era unscathed, but the op­ti­mists among us be­lieve that this ‘new nor­mal’ could ac­tu­ally be the best of times for mak­ing progress on the world’s wicked prob­lems.

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