Time for the art and science of tough decisions

by Sara Nora Ross, PhD

The new Obama administration is still in flux on its stance toward investigation of war crimes of U.S. torture. Public opinion is likely in flux, too. Decisions will be made. I think it’s time we grow some new skills at decision analysis to support the wisdom and endurance of public decision making processes. With an administration committed to transparency and explanation, the ideas here are meant to support it as well as the public at large to assess the adequacy of decisions. Every decision begins with a question or proposition. Whether well or poorly framed, its adequacy should be tested during the decision making process, at least if we are game to outgrow our childish ways, my chief hope in writing this. In other words, Einstein was right, and we need to educate ourselves about what it means to solve problems at a higher order of complexity than the thinking that created them.  

I have been studying complex decision making for a number of years. There’s both science to explain the complexity of its requisite dynamics and artful knowledge to shape its ideal best practices (a subject I’ll cover later). Here’s the concept. Complex decisions require increases in cognitive complexity (and they actually develop our cognitive complexity). In making decisions—individually as well as collectively—we go through the same series of steps. While at first blush this may merely smack of Hegel’s dialectic, it’s more: it unpacks the dynamics so we can’t paper over the rough ride to final synthesis.

  1. Thesis. We begin to question the thesis, proposition, or assumption we had been operating with. This means becoming open to other ideas because the earlier one is insufficient.
  2. Antithesis. We entertain or are confronted with an antithesis, e.g., others’ perspectives and convictions, or our own competing interests.
  3. Oscillate. Bi-polar period moving between the either-or of compelling theses. (Within the individual, the thesis-antithesis arguments are one’s own to sort through the pros and cons. In public, this step comes dressed as the polarized habit of taking political and ideological sides.)
  4. Smash. A chaotic state as the original ideas are “smashed” together. In this “open system” state, additional factors and new questions arise and enter the fray to consider, sort, compare, and even reframed…
  5. Synthesis. In genuinely complex decisions, the synthesis is more than just a new thesis or proposition or assumption. At minimum, it is a multifaceted array of systems to address the problem. When the effort is made, as it should be, it is also summarized as a principle. These are much higher order results, the products of coordinating disparate systemic relationships, arguments, and concerns in a necessary and sufficient fashion.

Two points to highlight here. The first is that partisan and ideological arguments often get no further than that third step of polarization. Time-pressured expediency and majority voting abort prospects to ever reach synthesis. The second point is that the fourth “smash” step is the mushy place where we have strong tendencies (as well as political expediency) to satisfy opposing views via compromise. The “and” of compromise is not the end state of a comprehensive decision, just one step on the way.

For example, Mr. Obama’s team might have begun with the thesis that war crime investigations into the U.S. application of torture policies should not be pursued because it would drain resources including political capital from the reservoir of resources needed to address the country’s steep challenges. Publicly asserted push-back should already be shifting them into the first step: question that thesis. An opposing thesis, one advocated in no uncertain terms by Jonathan Turley, professor of constitutional law at George Washington University, on some of Rachel Maddow’s January shows, is that as a party to international treaties the U.S. is required to prosecute war crimes, a nonnegotiable though “inconvenient principle” to enact.

Hamlet-like, a vital dilemma ensues. Once either/or options are framed, we constrain ourselves to identify pros and cons in hopes one side of the argument will tip the scale and show us the way. But rarely is it that clear cut, there are downsides to both sides. So we seek compromise (e.g., as I write, the economic stimulus package looks like a massive portion will be earmarked for tax cuts to appease Republican despite economic experts like Paul Krugman explaining why that bodes ill for recovery). Compromises arise in the “smash” step, where we must confront the many faces of complexity and juggle them and work through them. We give such complexity short shrift at our peril. When we are ignorant of the requisite steps in complex decision making, we sooth ourselves with thinking compromise is the best we can produce. That’s wrong headed and unprincipled thinking.

If we don’t seek out and unpack the complexity inherent in most decisions, we risk failing to identify and work through all the usually-unnoticed sub-questions as well as working through all the thus-complicated pros and cons of the original question. In sum, a complex decision has to morph through some chaotic phases with new questions introduced and assumptions reframed before a genuinely comprehensive synthesis can result. Any decision arrived at prematurely will have sacrificed that part of the process and be difficult if not impossible to defend on at least some fronts.

We can pretty much tell immediately when complexity’s demands have been shortchanged in a decision making process: the hue and cry of a decision’s detractors identify arguments, facts, considerations, consequences and so on that the decision does not address. On the war crimes front, let us hope the new administration will be entering the “smash” phase of transitioning beyond the dichotomy of looking forward is better than backward. That is, it should be moving beyond the either/or relativism of “do we look backward and investigate and prosecute” or “do we look forward and leave those stones unturned behind us.” That simplistic framing should be abandoned because it masks the complexity of the legal, political, moral, and practical factors to juggle. There are actually multiple decisions to be made, not least among them, this: how do we explain our decisions to the American people and the rest of the world with integrity and retain all possible political capital, moral standing, and consistency with both our legal requirements and operating principles?

On the stimulus package front, let us hope the administration moves through and beyond its tax cut compromise to a more synthetic decision premised on higher order principles that can help us climb out of this hole. To be well and truly done, defendable decision making must transition into grappling with the full array of complexities before it can come out on the other side—reconciling the multiple bottom lines a well-made decision process must synthesize into principled approaches that are both necessary and sufficient. In these times, nothing less will suffice.

Sara Nora Ross, Ph.D., is founder and president of ARINA, publisher of The Integral Process for Working on Complex Issues and the electronic open-access journal Integral Review: A Transdisciplinary and Transcultural Journal for New Thought, Research, and Praxis. She holds an interdisciplinary doctorate in Psychology and Political Development. She teaches, she writes and publishes, she consults, she analyzes the heck out of public dynamics and issues, she thinks and learns, and she conceives hundreds of creative strategies to launch meaningful systemic change and development and seeks to help others do likewise.

Generically, her main gig is developing and deploying meta understandings of human behavior and its patterns and processes at micro, meso, and macro scales. That stems from a conviction that it’s time for individuals, social grouping, and institutions in at least some key places to develop some/more/enough metacognition to replace business as usual approaches to, well, just about everything they’re doing if what they are doing affects the “larger community” (and in this interconnected world, not much is left out of that equation). As said by someone recently inaugurated: it’s time to grow up and act like adults. I support that agenda.

1 reply »

  1. If only. I like to imagine living in a place where decision making is approached as described above.

    In problem solving i find myself employing something similar to the “smash” step, though i’ve always called it “circling”. That is, going around and around the problem (or issue) trying to find every angle/facet/possible solution. But every possible solution needs to be extrapolated out under the same process. What new problems might solution A create? These need to be circled too.

    If, for example, machine A is broken, rushing in to take it apart hardly makes sense. You need to understand where and how it isn’t working correctly (and what’s it’s supposed to do when functioning correctly).

    The largest economy in the world certainly needs more than committee mechanicing, where one portion is simply sure that it must be a bad alternator and another “knows” that the problem is bad spark plugs. After all, there isn’t much worse than dumping a bunch of money to have your car fixed, driving it away, and the problem reoccurring later that week.

    Thanks for the thought provocation, Ms. Ross. And would you like a job riding herd on the kindergarten street gangs of our fair capitol?