Steven Johnson is one of my favorite writers. Over the years, he has gotten me to rethink paradigm shifts (they happen in a more piecemeal fashion than I used to believe) and evolution (we can plan at some of our mental—if not our physical—evolution as a species). So, I read Farsighted the day it arrived on my Kindle.
This time, Johnson takes on the procedures we use in making momentous decisions. He starts by noting that we tend to think more about the consequences of decisions like the one to kill Osama bin-Laden than about the ways we go about making them. That makes next to no sense in today’s world of complex, wicked problems.
He starts by drawing Nobel Prize winning polymath Herbert Simon’s idea of bounded rationality. Put simply, we can never know enough about any complicated problem to have the kind of full information classical economists assume in rational choice models. So, Johnson asks, what should we do when we have to factor in the effects of dozens of interconnected variables and have lots of holes in what we know about any of them.
So, he lays out tools we can use when we are making momentous decisions about an unknown, unknowable, and constantly changing future. Of course, he is correct in arguing that there is no one-size-fits-all toolbox we can rely on. However, he defines a series of steps that people could and should use, whose absence was clear in the dozens of cases he cites.
- Map the issue in the kind of model we in peacebuilding call a conflict or systems map. Here, it is important to assemble as diverse a team as possible that lays out what is known about the causes and consequences of a problem and has the good sense to ask what got left out. The mental or physical map gets built by a team that surfaces what he calls divergent ideas so that the picture reflects what he calls a full spectrum analysis. That has to include understanding the “cone of uncertainty” involved in any planning process, a term we on the east coast have learned to appreciate while watching Hurricane Florence near land.
- Use the maps to make predictions about what is likely to happen and then adjust your plan of action once those predictions prove false and you figure out why that was the case. That requires what organizational theorists refer to as adaptive management in which leaders keep their eyes on the longer term goal and shift the tactics they use in getting there as circumstances warrant. In fact, as he shows in the case of weather forecasting, we can do this a lot better than we could have even twenty years ago in most areas of life.
- Then, we have to decide what to do for which our calculations of expected costs and benefits should be as explicit as possible. Here, Johnson draws on the work of scenario planners and others who suggest that we make the most informed judgments we have a number of plausible outcomes in front of us and get to choose from among them. Note how rarely this happens in policy making on such issues as climate change, dealing with terrorism, or addressing racism.
- We can never make fully informed choices especially when we are dealing with what Donald Rumsfeld famously referred to as unknown unknowns. But, if Johnson is right, we can map out the likely causes and consequences of our actions and at least narrow our options so that we get close to what Simon had in mind when he talkd about bounded rationality.
In short, a wonderful book by one of the most gifted and insightful writers of our day.