INTOUCH : It’s a blinking mystery

That we don’t know what we don’t know is something of truism – but quite often we don’t know, or can’t explain what we do know, and the mystery around the role intuition plays in decision-making deserves respect.
That’s according to Malcolm Gladwell, the US-based author of Blink: The Power of Thinking Without Thinking and of The Tipping Point: How Little Things Can Make Difference. In Auckland next week to speak at the Global Leaders’ Forum, Gladwell reckons you can’t and shouldn’t try to nail down the unconscious aspects of business decision making. By nature they defy definition – and forcing the issue risks de-railing access to what he describes as the source of some of our most sophisticated and innovative thinking.
“Organisations often fall into the trap of wanting everyone to give chapter and verse as to why they are making the decisions they’re making. I think it’s very important, when it comes to expert, experienced people, that we respect this mystery.”
Besides, the expectation that motivation or intention can be precisely described is, he suggests, false comfort.
“It doesn’t mean that, just because you can explain exactly what you’re doing, that it is good. And for organisations with very formalised procedures, that’s difficult lesson to learn.”
Gladwell, staff writer for The New Yorker magazine, is known for his ability to take leading-edge research in psychology, neuro-science and sociology and apply this to the business world. His exploration of how ideas suddenly gain momentum itself gave global prominence to the notion of the “tipping point” and he describes his own books as “intellectual adventure stories”.
To pursue the lessons of the books, people have to be willing to “kind of embrace the mystery of human psychology” which requires something of leap of faith for business folk. Good intuition, for instance, is not necessarily something you can learn in business school.
“I think that being exposed to wide variety of experiences, given an opportunity to experiment, make mistakes, be given occasions for reflection and feedback as we learn – all of these are things that build up that ineffable thing called intuition. It’s why the best organisations move their people around so they can see the world from more than one perspective.”
He also warns that this unconscious aspect of knowledge can’t readily be captured.
“I don’t know if you can capture it in formal way. I think you capture the people who have it. I think you learn to understand who has that level of expertise and you treat them with respect and you treat this skill of theirs with respect and you work like hell to hang on to them.”
It’s why companies should be very aware of what they might lose by downsizing staff or outsourcing previously in-house functions.
“A large part of your unconscious (or implicit) knowledge is going to march out the door and it may take while to get it back.”
The people who try to reduce this to textbook form fail because it can’t be done – and it’s why firms need to pay keen attention to their human capital, says Gladwell.
Of course, intuition is complex process and has its own fallibilities. Executives in the same company may have very strong intuitions that lean toward quite different courses of action. Which highlights the reality that, like it or not, there are no sure-fix answers – although that is what prompts people to “default to conscious analysis”, says Gladwell.
“There is no system that can tell us with 100 percent accuracy what the right answer is. You’re always gambling and I guess I’m just trying to educate people as to the nature of the gamble.”
What organisations need to do is “embrace the uncertainty” and be flexible enough to change course if one bet turns out to be wrong.
“That to me, is the challenge – it is organisations that pretend they always know the right answers that get into trouble.”
Gladwell will be sharing the stage at SkyCity Entertainment Theatre with other leading thinkers: Goran Carstedt, former head of IKEA who’ll be talking about breathing life into organisational cultures; CK Prahalad, professor of corporate strategy at the University of Michigan and author of several books – including The Fortune at the Bottom of the Pyramid; and Daniel Pink, author of Whole New Mind.
The day-long forum is on Friday 9 February.
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