Cognitive Strategies For Adopting In The Age Of Uncertainty

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  • 1. ILLUSTRATION: KERI SMITH } 2 0 0 0 F { 1A L L 2
  • 2. M ND I FUL TI Cognitive Strategies for Adapting in the Age of Uncertainty H NKING By Mihnea Moldoveanu and Ellen Langer T he complexity of today’s management environment demands leaders who can think in creative, new ways. Mihnea Moldoveanu, assistant professor of Strategic Management at the Rotman School, and Ellen Langer, professor of Social Psychology at Harvard, argue that a new way of thinking for the New Economy calls not only for new theories, but for new ways of thinking about theories. In this article, they describe cognitive strategies that allow business leaders to see things in a whole new light. If the barber shaves only those who do not shave themselves, then who shaves the barber? It cannot be the barber himself, because he only shaves those who do not shave themselves. It cannot be someone else, because the barber shaves all those who do not shave themselves.The logician you call on your cellular phone tells you this is an example of a paradox – a syllogism that leads from true premises to untenable conclusions.What to do? What to think? The solution to the paradox is that no such barber exists.To get to it, however, you have to break out of the bounds of the problem statement, and consider the way in which the problem is stated as the problem to be solved. Managers are often trapped by their own problem statements. Shifting the way a problem is framed requires seeing it from multiple perspectives. { R O T M A N M A N A G E M E N T } 13
  • 3. If we want to train industry-makers, we need longer applicable because there is no theory to close our minds to teach the cognitive skills required to for- that is ultimately justified.All theories should Although causation is not clearly estab-mulate new problems to replace old ones. be regarded as subject to modification, lished as an explanatory device on logicalNew problem-statements are often based on improvement or deletion; grounds, it is very well established as annew ways of seeing, new disciplines and new •Mindsets are not determined by explanatory device on psychological grounds.assumptions. experiences: the ‘cold, hard facts’ do not Causal explanations have an air of certainty Unfortunately, business education is divid- ‘determine’ any particular theory (although they to them that probabilistic explanations anded up into specialties that are individually do shape and guide what we can sensibly and explanations based on mechanisms lack; andmonopolized by age-old disciplines: finance, truthfully say).We are ultimately free to choose, certainty, it turns out, is something we crave.operations, economics, accounting, organiza- defend, or deport our cognitive commitments. A new way of thinking for the New Econ-tional behavior, technology strategy and so We have set out to map cognitive and omy calls not only for new theories, but forforth. When in ‘finance’ class, the would-be meta-cognitive strategies aimed at getting new ways of thinking about theories, and new‘industry-makers’ solve finance problems; people ‘unhooked’ from their own ideas, such meanings as to what constitutes a theory. Itwhen in ‘operations’ class, they solve ‘opera- that they may perceive old problems in new calls for new strategies of playing with yourtions’ problems. But real-world problems often ways, along with new problems that open up own mind, such as:require solving engineering problems in opera- whenever we become slightly more respon- •thinking conditionally, in terms oftions scenarios, programming problems in sive to the anomalies that surround us.These what various objects could be, rather than inhardware scenarios, and psychological prob- strategies are not in any sense ‘rules’, but terms of what they are, of what could ratherlems in economic scenarios. rather guides to sequences of cognitive choic- than what will happen.Thinking conditionally What are the cognitive and meta-cognitive es – choices among our beliefs, models and gives us the freedom to flex the muscles ofskills (ie: the ways in which we think our theories. They are not meant to contain or perception. Experiments carried out by onethoughts and believe our beliefs) required to constrain cognition, but rather to guide and of us show that presenting information in atake control of the New Economy? We will ven- shape inquiry. conditional fashion leads to better perfor-ture to build a case for a new way of thinking mance on cognitive tasks that require the useabout thinking and learning, based on our study Thinking about Thinking of that information in new ways;of the ways in which people believe their beliefs. The new informational and institutional land- •thinking in terms of particulars, Cognitive commitment to an idea or a the- scape calls for new ways of thinking – and of rather than solely in terms of universal rulesory, we will argue, is not a friend, but an dealing with complexity, uncertainty and and laws, lets us perceive the novel aspect of aenemy that lures us into the lukewarm waters change. Many of the models and theories that situation and produce the adaptive behavior thatof various disciplines that strive to keep us are currently being taught in universities rely may be required to successfully deal with it;there. Getting out of a cognitive commit- on a dated metaphysical model of the world: •thinking in terms of intentionsment, however, is just as difficult as getting the universe as a giant piece of machinery, rather than causes, can unfreeze our cog-out of a bad relationship. New strategies are whose components are linked by the iron nitive commitment to the ‘one true picture’required to help us win the ensuing mental chains of causation. This ‘world view’ has of the world that we may be stuck with.Think-battles, and new thinking is required to craft become ensconced into the ways in which we ing in terms of intentions is at the core of thethese strategies. inquire into the working of people, groups great discoveries in cognitive and social psy- Our collective work on individual cognition and institutions: we expect law-like regulari- chology, which have made us aware of the rela-and learning and the processes by which beliefs ties to show up everywhere, and discover tionship between the way we want to see theget selected, validated or rejected reveals that: them even in sequences of events that have world and the way in which we currently see it; •Mindsets are sticky: they are much been designed to be ‘random’ so as to fool us, •thinking spirally, in terms ofmore easily prevented than cured once they as experiments on gamblers indicate. As sequences of events that amplify each other,have been ‘learned’; Israeli psychologist Arie Kruglanski has rather than linearly, in terms of causes and •Mindsets are alive: they are active, not shown, experiments on people’s responses to effects, lets us break out of the narrow cornerobjects.They stick around because we active- randomness and uncertainty demonstrate that of the immediate experience;ly defend them against refutation that discon- we ‘find’ patterns everywhere, as if motivated •thinking holistically, in terms of thefirms the theories on which they rest. characteristics of a system that cannot be ana- This, at least, is what studies of individual lyzed in terms of components and sub-com-and group psychology seem to show. Psycholo- ponents of that system, can make the escapegists often stop here. On the other hand, episte- from narrow analytical corners easy and “ To the answer embedded in everymology (the study of knowledge itself) and the rewarding; question, answer with a questionhistory of science suggest that, from a different answer.” •thinking consequentially, not only •Mindsets are provisional: they can be — Gilles Deleuze, in terms of choices and the consequences ofchanged, modified, or discarded when no French Philosopher those choices, but also in terms of the conse-14 { F A L L 2 0 0 0 }
  • 4. quences of choosing to think in a particular nitely not as a case that has been tailored forway. This allows us to examine the effects of the theory it is aiming to illustrate. “We see things not asour beliefs on our own ability to act decisive- they are, but as we are.”ly and successfully; Invoking Scripts — The Talmud •thinking in parallel, carrying forward What principles and immovable concepts aremultiple possible models of the world rather to individual minds, scripts are to interper-than discarding all but the ‘one true model’ – sonal relations, as the work of American psy-lets us form multiple perspectives of the same chologist Bob Abelson has shown.The teacherphenomenon; teaches. In his own mind, he has cognitive •thinking like a detective, by treating we may not be directly conscious of it. jurisdiction over the subject matter. Hisall theories, models and prescriptions as Becoming conscious of the structures of inter- ‘script’ calls for him to be correct all of thehypotheses to be tested through our actions active reasoning that we use can make us time, for the student to be ‘incapable of givingrather than conclusory statements of ‘truth’ to more successful players of the social games, the right answer’ some or most of the followed unquestioningly; sub-games and super-games that often charac- In the teacher’s script, the student is in the •thinking recursively, not only about terize organizational life. classroom to learn, to be evaluated, and to failthe relation between ‘data’ and ‘theory’ or at least some of the time. Otherwise, therebetween ‘model’ and ‘object’, but also about Thinking Dialectically would not be much that the teacher couldthe ways in which we think about the links Dialectical thinking plays various ideas and teach the student. Forced grading curves rein-between theory and data, or model and object. theories off each other without seeking to force the teacher script.They legislate, ex ante establish any one of them with absolute cer- that most students must get a grade that isThinking Interactively tainty.While goal-oriented thinking seeks cer- less than the ‘top’ grade in the class.We reason about each other all of the time, tainty and often shuns questioning, dialectical Having figured out the teacher’s ‘script’,but very rarely reason with each other. We thinking puts forth ideas with an eye to chal- the student proceeds to ‘play’ it by producingthink interpersonally, but rarely think interac- lenging or refuting them using other ideas or behavior targeted at reinforcing the script intively.We often make attributions and gener- theories. When choices must be made order to achieve optimum results. The stu-alize from very few instances to construct between alternative points of view, it is with dent’s script calls for behavior that is designedentire schemas into which our experiences an understanding that these choices are never to produce not necessarily the greatest amountneatly fit. But, we do not stop to ask:‘what if absolutely justified. of knowledge, but the most favorable impres-everyone else is also using the same schemas?’ While it may seem that such playful think- sion on the teacher. These two goals are not Social psychologists have pointed out for a ing can only be suitably engaged in by poets always (if ever) identical. The student realizeslong time that interpersonal reasoning is and philosophers, it is nevertheless highly use- that the ‘teacher must teach’. She also realizesbased on a set of metaphors and schemas that ful as a practical tool for decision-makers in that the quickest way to a teacher’s heart (andhelp us organize our experiences and take complex environments, where ‘certainty’ is to good grades) is to ‘play the game’ of repeat-swift action.We are quick to categorize others costly, as the financier and philanthropist ing back to the teacher what the latter has pre-at work as ‘gamesmen’,‘schmoozers’,‘politi- George Soros has recently argued. sented as ‘knowledge’ to the animals’, ‘leaders’, ‘followers’ and ‘syco- Significant barriers must be overcome in The student counts on the fact that thephants’.That means, however, that others may order to bring dialectical thinking into the teacher is too self-deceived to see through thesee us as gamesmen or schmoozers as well. business education process. Quite often in the student’s strategy of ‘appeasement’. With Far less attention, has been paid to the classroom of the professional school, ‘the every action that the student takes, she rein-ways in which people think about what other right answer’ consists of merely articulating forces the teacher’s ‘teachers must teach’people think, about what other people think how a case study fits under a general principle script.With every reward and punishment thatthey think, and so forth. Yet, this form of (a model or a theory). ‘Cracking the case’ the teacher metes out to students, he rein-interpersonal mindfulness is critical to our means, quite often ‘applying the rules’ that forces the ‘teacher is stupid enough to be flat-being able to successfully engage in even the appear on page ‘xyz’ of a textbook.This peda- tered’ script that the student has.The result ismost trivial coordination tasks, such as keep- gogical device efficiently solves the immediate a mutually reinforcing spiral of actions thating an appointment for a meeting (we think problems of the teacher and the taught, such jointly perpetuate the two scripts.that the other thinks we will make it), telling a as producing a course that is easy to grade and Dialectical thinking helps break us out ofplausible falsehood (we think the other thinks whose successful completion depends on at these self-defeating psychological dynamics.that we are telling the truth, and that they least showing up. But it is unlikely that it builds It focuses on empirical facts as challenges tothink we think they think we are telling the the skills necessary to formulate or re-formu- theories and on theories as challenges totruth, otherwise we would give ourselves late the problems that will be encountered in known interpretations of empirical observa-away by a nervous twitch). Most social rea- business life. A manager’s predicament does tions. ‘Cognitive jurisdiction’ breaks down,soning, in fact, is interactive – even though not come packaged as a case study, and defi- and the ‘one continued on page 39 { R O T M A N M A N A G E M E N T } 15