Making wise decisions in an age of information overload: 21Inc edition

From a recent column in the TJ:
A few months ago Nadine Duguay, Executive Director of 21 Inc., asked me if I would be interested in speaking at the Emerging Leaders Summit. The 50 Emerging Leaders program is an initiative of 21 Inc. set up to cultivate a new generation of leaders across Atlantic Canada. The summit was held last week in Digby, Nova Scotia.

Instead of just speaking to the group, I decided to put them through an exercise I called a ‘role reversal debate’.

I am convinced it is getting harder than ever to make good, thoughtful decisions related to public policy and also strategic direction in the business world.

Leaders are bombarded with information from all sides. At our fingertips we have access to more data than ever before – much of it pure junk. I personally receive over 100 emails and attempt to sift through a Twitter stream of several hundred posts every single day. This is on top of my efforts to monitor key media sources and read important news stories.

There is mounting evidence that faced with this information overload, leaders are reverting to intuition and snap decision making more than ever before. Daniel Kahneman, a Nobel prize winner in economics, does an excellent job of describing this kind of fast decision making in his book Thinking, Fast and Slow.

My objective with the Emerging Leaders was to help them move beyond intuitive thinking and snap judgements.

I provided them with a list of controversial public policy topics and they were asked to evaluate them and pick the one they felt the most passionate about. I then grouped them in likeminded teams and asked them to develop the arguments against their strongly held point of view.

I wasn’t sure how this exercise would work out. Here was a group of 50 ambitious, smart and savvy young people and I was asking them to put aside their strongly held views on a subject and argue the exact opposite position.

They did an outstanding job of it. The teams threw themselves into the exercise although some were visibly awkward making their case. Most of these leaders are charismatic, comfortable speaking in front of crowds and quick thinkers.

We had urban advocates making a powerful argument in favour of focusing on rural development. There were social advocates making the case for cuts to social assistance benefits. Some of the business leaders among the group had to argue in favour of raising taxes on higher income earners and a team of environmentally-focused leaders had to argue the merits of a large fish farming project off the coast of Nova Scotia.

The point of the exercise was not to get people to change their mind on the issue at hand.

In democratic and non-coercive societies, big decisions tend to get made by consensus. If we are to get to a consensus view, we need to take the time to understand all the different points of view.

I wanted the emerging leaders to realize that nudging or moving people wholesale in your direction is helped by acknowledging they are not stupid and their positions have merit.

Eventually leaders have to make decisions – even tough decisions. One of the consequences of our information rich/insight poor society is that leaders are even more reluctant to make decisions as they fear the instant feedback.

Around a dozen of the emerging leaders told me they really appreciated the role reversal debate. They enjoyed being forced to step outside their comfort zone and methodically derive a set of arguments that made them uncomfortable as it was counterintuitive for them.

It was a mentally exhausting exercise but hopefully it will help them in some small way become better decision makers in the years ahead.

One of the young leaders jokingly said I should take this exercise on the road and put all of our politicians, bureaucrats and advocacy groups through the process.
It’s not a bad idea.


4 thoughts on “Making wise decisions in an age of information overload: 21Inc edition

  1. I am sharing this across my network. I find I spend as much time in heated discussions among those whose views align with mine as I do with those whose views are opposite to mine. The intransigence of those who believe they hold the moral high ground is a serious impediment to progress.

  2. Role reversal is an excellent strategy. It takes me back to my days in high school, where we were taught public speaking and debating (this was in Ontario, not here). It was important to be able to pick up any subject, any side of it, and argue in a reasoned and cogent manner. My experience in those activities were central to my later successes in life.

  3. It’s cool you picked that. I remember watching one of Michael Palin’s documentaries, the one where he went to Tibet, and there were a group of monk’s who did this each day. It was also physical training, but essentially it came down to ‘debating oneself’, and that is exactly the point, learning to look at other points of view. It doesn’t work quite so well in groups like that, I think it works better on the internet-since its fairly likely that a lot of people simply don’t know, or can’t remember that they heard other viewpoints (not a lot of people will say “Yes I know the arguments prove this wrong, but I still believe what I believe even if its wrong”.

    So, for example, picking the hot button issue of shale gas, there are lots of comments about “this can be done as long as we have strong regulations”. That is true, but then you ask people what they know about the regulations in New Brunswick, and you get a blank stare. They just ‘assume’ the government is on it because, well, because the government SAYS they are ‘on it’.

    I think its a mistake to bring that exercise into public policy, because if you actually look at all the FACTS of an issue, the policy decision is usually pretty clear. I would argue that going into public policy you shouldn’t have ANY beliefs at all. And I suppose that the exercise you and the tibetan monks exercised would stress that-since the opposite argument to your beliefs should cancel them both out.

  4. Very interesting, I wish I had been there. I read Daniel Kahnemann’s book and his conclusions seem so obvious that the reader almost wonders why the book is such a big deal.

    But of course it is a big deal because we assume that leaders make by rational evidence-based decisions, whereas it’s obvious they often don’t. Politicians make decisions based on what they think will get them re-elected which is far from evidence-based and rational and their voters certainly arent’.

    I wish indeed that the shale gas parties would volunteer to go through this exercise

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